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Offshore Workers Target Troubled Copter

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

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Tens of thousands of offshore inspectors, technicians and other professionals are seeking to ground a transport helicopter that has been involved in five major incidents in four years, including one accident that recently killed four people.

In all, 20 people have died in Super Puma accidents in the last four years.

"Deathtraps" is the critics' common label for various models of Eurocopter's "Super Puma," which was grounded after four people died in a crash Aug. 23. Less than a week later, however, Britain's Civil Aviation Authority lifted the ban, saying it had found no evidence that the crash was caused by a "technical problem" with the choppers.

Eurocopter EC225
Helicopter Safety Steering Group

Flights of Eurocopter's EC225 Super Pumas have resumed after four people perished in a crash Aug. 23. The copters ferry thousands of offshore workers each year.

Thousands of UK offshore professionals who must be transported by Super Pumas to and from installations are furious at the decision.

"The mood of the workers is in revolt," one longtime coatings inspector who has often flown in Super Pumas told PaintSquare News.

2nd Flight Ban

The Aug. 23 crash of a Eurocopter AS332 operated by CHC Helicopter occurred just a few weeks after Eurocopter was allowed to resume sea flights for the Super Pumas. UK regulators had grounded the copters for months while investigating a gearbox problem after two different models of Super Puma ditched last year.

Investigations into both forced landings, in May and October 2012, revealed a 360° circumferential crack in the main gearbox near a weld. After the October incident, the Civil Aviation Authority suspended operations of the EC225.

In July 2013, the Helicopter Safety Steering Group, an oil industry group, reported that it had "secured full, independently verified assurance" that the causes of the 2012 gearbox failures had been identified and remedied, "enabling a safety return to flight." In a Fact Sheet, the group laid the cause to corroded welds caused by trapped water in high-stress areas.

The group said that immediate maintenance and monitoring steps were in place to prevent a recurrence, while Eurocopter pursued the year-long-plus process of designing a new gearbox shaft.

EC 225 gearbox crack
Helicopter Safety Steering Group

Two forced landings of the EC225 last year were traced to a circumferential crack in the main gearbox caused by corrosion. A flight ban on the copters was lifted in July.

"HSSG is confident that, with the multiple safety barriers, the EC225 aircraft can now return to full service," the group concluded in a PowerPoint presentation in July.

The CAA allowed the aircraft to return to service after the European Aviation Safety Agency approved a technical solution proposed by Eurocopter for the EC225 fleet.

'Big Boy Pants'

Just after those flights resumed, offshore workers at one oil company were reportedly urged to put on their "big-boy pants" or quit if they refused to ride in the helicopters.

"If you can’t live with that risk, then you can’t work offshore," an executive of Total oil told one employee who had raised the concern. An audio tape of the safety meeting was leaked to a Scottish newspaper, Britain's Mail Online reported.

A pilot for the company's helicopter contractor added: "At some point we have to put our big-boy pants on..." and added that he was "willing to sit in the front and risk my family and everything that I have got."

Weeks later, the copter ditched in the North Sea while carrying 16 passengers and two crew members to a drilling rig. Four people died.

Deadly Accident

The copters were again grounded after the Aug. 23 fatal crash, but that ban was lifted a week later.

"We have reviewed and assessed the evidence available, including the information already published by the Air Accident Investigation Branch and detailed information provided to us by the operators," a CAA spokesman told the BBC.

"Our team of specialists includes pilots who are experienced in flying the Super Puma AS332 L2 in the North Sea environment."

The spokesman added: "Based on all the information currently available, we do not believe that the accident was caused by an airworthiness or technical problem, and consider that the decision by the operators to resume Super Puma flights is appropriate."

Support for Flights

Helicopter Safety Steering Group team leader Les Linklater told Offshore Energy Today that flights had to be resumed to ferry home more than 250 people who had been stranded offshore for 21 days. The agency also proposed an independent review of helicopter operations.

Eurocopter factory
Helicopter Safety Steering Group

"HSSG is confident that, with the multiple safety barriers, the EC225 can now return to full service," the Helicopter Safety Steering Group concluded one month before a fatal crash.

About 25,000 people work for more than 100 nights a year offshore in the UK, according to Oil and Gas UK, an industry association. The number increases to about 50,000 when including those who work offshore for a few nights a year.

Oil and Gas UK's chief exeuctive, Malcolm Webb, "commended" the resumption of flights and added: "No one unwilling to fly will be forced to do so."

Eurocopter, the world's largest commercial helicopter manufacturer, also welcomed the lifting of the ban.

"Eurocopter designs helicopters to transport people as safely as possible, and to protect, serve and rescue them," the company said in a statement. "That is our daily mission, and we continuously strive to improve our safety record. The AS332 L, L1, L2 and EC225 have been reliable aircraft for more than 30 years."

'Destroy the Super Pumas'

The decision to allow the copter to fly again, however, has outraged members of "Destroy the Super Puma's," a new Facebook group of oil and gas professionals who want the copters permanently grounded. The group was founded the day after the fatal August crash and gained more than 38,000 "Likes" within a week.

Although the black box from the Aug. 23 crash has been found, no cause of the accident has been determined.

"Its all very confusing as we are also hearing that the flight recorder has not yet been analysed, would this suggest that it was down to pilot error?" posted the page administrator. "No doubt it will become clearer as the news comes through but I have to say the thought of it returning at this point regardless of the cause is concerning everyone."

Facebook
Facebook

Offshore workers have mounted a social media campaign to ground Eurocopter's Super Pumas.

Many workers who have flown in the EC225 report cramped conditions that they say prevent evacuation in a crash.

"In an emergency, it would be nigh-on impossible to get out of such a small space," one worker told the BBC. "The EC225 is a flying death trap."

Another worker told PaintSquare News: "I personally hate these aircraft as they are overly cramped. It is like being jammed into a sardine can and vibrated remorselessly for up to 3 hours. You can't move, and the seats are barely large enough for a sub-70-pound child, let alone a fully grown oil worker who is further encumbered by a bulky combined rebreather and flotation jacket over the top of a survival suit ... with three layers of clothing beneath."

Earlier Accidents

Super Pumas make up about half of the 75-helicopter fleet that conducts about 50,000 ferry flights annually in the UK, officials say. Problems with the helicopters predate last year.

In April 2009, a Super Puma model crashed off the coast of Scotland while bringing workers home from a BP oil platform. The crash killed all 16 people aboard. That helicopter belonged to Bond Offshore Helicopters.

The fatal crash came two months after an EC225 Super Puma operated by Bond crashed in the North Sea. In that case, the 18 people aboard were rescued.

   

Tagged categories: Coating inspection; Fatalities; Health and safety; Offshore; Oil and Gas

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