In the last thirty years or so, a number of workers have lost their lives in offshore helicopter crashes. The need for better helicopter safety is paramount for UK organisations, such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), which have worked to improve regulations and protect the 18,000 UK oil rig workers during their risky commute.

What are the worst offshore helicopter crashes and how have industry authorities attempted to improve matters?

The worst offshore helicopter crashes

While major offshore disasters like Piper Alpha and Deepwater Horizon typically dominate the headlines, offshore helicopter crashes are a serious issue for the oil and gas industry. Though incidents may be on a smaller scale, the death toll continues to rise and the frequency of crashes has led to serious concerns that must be addressed. Since 2009, there have been six helicopter accidents resulting in 33 deaths and the need for 65 others to be rescued.

The worst UK offshore helicopter disaster occurred in 1986 when a Chinook helicopter travelling from the Brent oilfield off the eastern coast of the Shetland Islands in the North Sea suffered a mechanical fault due to the two rotor blades colliding. The helicopter, which was two miles from its destination, the Sumburgh Airport in South Shetland, was carrying 43 offshore employees and three crew members. The impact killed all but two of those on board, with one passenger and one crew member suffering non-fatal wounds.

“We went from 100mph to 0mph. It was a very violent move. I reckon that’s when most of the men died. My co-pilot, as the handling pilot, broke his neck. I survived because I was doing the admin stuff. I was sitting back and my back was resting, whereas he was leaning forward,” said the only surviving crew member Captain Pushp Vaid in a recitation of the incident to the Express in 2016.

“I tried to get the helicopter back to level, I didn’t realise the rest of the helicopter was falling down. The Chinook tipped over and the main cabin took the impact of the crash. When they recovered the wreckage, mine was the only seat out of the 47 that was reasonably intact. All the others were smashed.”

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All too often, similar stories have been told. In July 2002, a helicopter crashed offshore Norfolk while ferrying Shell employees between the Clipper and Global Santa Fe Monarch drilling rigs. The cause of the incident, according to the opinion of the helicopter’s manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft, was a lightning strike in 1999 that exploited an anomaly built into the blade and damaged the main wing structure, or spar.

Another fatal incident occurred in December 2006, during the transportation of an offshore natural gas crew from Millom West to Morecambe South AP1 platform in the Irish Sea. Seconds before the Eurocopter AS365 Dauphin touched down for its scheduled stop at North Morecambe, adverse weather conditions and issues with his co-pilot’s wellbeing, reportedly disorientated pilot.

The UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) said in its investigative report in 2008: “During the attempted recovery of the helicopter from its unusual attitude the commander was devoid of any external visual cues and was possibly distracted over concerns for the well-being of his co-pilot.

“Concerns for his co-pilot and some degree of disorientation possibly distracted the commander from his usual instrument scan to the extent that he did not notice the increasing angle of bank to the right and the helicopter’s continuing descent into the sea.”

After the incident, the HSE launched a three-year inquiry, inspecting up to 100 offshore installations and issued a warning to the offshore industry that it must “show leadership and face up to its responsibility.”

Latest fatal incident sparks debate over a public inquiry

In April 2016, all 13 members on-board the Eurocopter 225L Super Puma lost their lives when travelling from the Gullfaks oilfield to Bergen, Norway, due to an explosion. Investigations into the incident concluded that one of the gears in the main rotor gearbox had failed due to a concealed fatigue crack.

An eyewitness told local newspaper the Bergensavisen: “There was an explosion and a very peculiar engine sound, so I looked out the window. I saw the helicopter falling quickly into the sea. Then I saw a big explosion.”

The Accident Investigation Board Norway (AIBN), in its final report in 2018, made 12 recommendations, including telling Airbus Helicopters (formerly Eurocopter) to re-evaluate the main gearbox design of the Super Puma.

Scottish transport minister Michael Matheson and energy minister Paul Wheelhouse have recently agreed to meet with the CAA and the Oil and Gas Authority (OGA) to discuss how to improve safety during air transportations.

Colin Clark, Conservative MP for Gordon, Aberdeenshire, said last month that a public inquiry into the crash was unnecessary, despite concerns from trade unions to review offshore travel.

“Clearly we want the best possible standard for crews travelling offshore. I have met with three of the helicopter companies, and I hope to meet with all of them by the end of the month,” said Clark, according to Energy Voice.

“If anything has changed, there have been massive improvements. This is an industry that relies on equipment being thoroughly tested and safety has been at the forefront of absolutely every single company I have visited.”

Frameworks to prevent offshore helicopter crashes

Alistair Carmichael, Liberal Democrat and MP for Orkney and Shetland, has thrown his support behind Parliamentary Motion 553 aiming for urgent improvement in the safety of North Sea transport helicopters.

“The same few mechanical failures have been the cause of crashes time and time again, and lifting the restrictions on Super Puma L225s without working with unions and restoring confidence is a mistake,” he said on his constituency website.

“It is vital that the CAA improve helicopter transport safety arrangements in order to halt the worrying trend in crashes, and restore faith in the robustness of the regulations.”

“It is vital that the CAA improve helicopter transport safety arrangements in order to halt the worrying trend in crashes, and restore faith in not only the helicopters, but the robustness of the regulations. Offshore workers need to know that their safety is in the mind of the regulator.”

So, how is the CAA driving offshore safety?  After publishing its comprehensive review of offshore helicopter operations, in collaboration with its Norwegian counterpart and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), the CAA announced updated measures.

First and foremost, it prohibits helicopters to fly during the most severe sea conditions in order to speed up rescue operations and reduce the risk of a ditched vessel capsizing. It also requires all passengers to sit next to an emergency exit on board and all helicopters to be equipped with better breathing apparatus to increase a passenger’s underwater survival time.

The CAA also said it would engage with trade unions, industry leaders, helicopter manufacturers and operators, the government and independent experts to build future projects enhancing safety and mitigating future offshore helicopter crashes.