Helicopter would not have crashed if pilot had stabilised speed, inquiry told

Four people were killed when the Super Puma L2 ditched in the sea on its approach to Sumburgh Airport in Shetland in August 2013.

Shetland helicopter crash
Shetland helicopter crash

A helicopter which ditched in the sea with the loss of four lives would not have crashed if the pilot had stabilised the speed on approach to the airport, an inquiry has heard.

Mark Prior, an expert pilot, said that if the pilot had stabilised the speed at 80 knots he would have been able to level off and would not have ended up losing control of the aircraft.

Two crew members and 12 passengers on the Super Puma L2 survived when it ditched on its approach to Sumburgh Airport in Shetland at 6.17pm on August 23 2013.

But Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Moray; Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness; Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Hampshire, died.

An AAIB report published in 2016 found that the pilots failed to properly monitor the flight instruments and failed to notice their speed was decreasing until it was too late to avoid the helicopter plunging into the sea.

Crown witness Mr Prior, a private aviation consultant who previously worked for the RAF for 40 years, prepared a report on the crash with three other pilot experts for the Fatal Accident Inquiry (FAI), which is being held virtually due to coronavirus measures.

Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle, who is leading the inquiry, said: “What we know is, at some later point, the aircraft got down to the correct speed of 80 knots and that was more than two miles from Sumburgh Airport.

“In the event that the pilot who apparently said just after that point ‘Right that’s 80 knots, that’ll do’, if the pilot had then stabilised the speed at 80 knots would the accident have occurred?”

Mr Prior replied: “In my opinion no, because if they had flown at 80 knots that would have allowed them to continue. There was still an issue due to the autopilot configuration, it would have been difficult to level, but, that point aside, they would have had enough energy to level off and perhaps commence a missed approach.

“Certainly they would not have been in a regime of flight where the manual handling of the aircraft became more difficult and in the end they lost control.”

The inquiry heard that later in the flight the air speed dropped from 70 knots to 35 knots over around 23 seconds and then crashed.

Mr Prior said he did not believe the crew scanned the instruments effectively during those 23 seconds because they had not noticed the drop in speed.

Asked what would have happened if this performance had been replicated in tests for an examination, he replied: “They would certainly have failed the test.”

Mr Prior said both the pilot flying (PF) and pilot non-flying (PNF) had responsibility for monitoring the air speed, though the PF had “more weight” in the role as the PNF had other tasks to carry out.

Shetland helicopter crash
Victims Duncan Munro, George Allison, Gary McCrossan and Sarah Darnley (Police Scotland/PA)

He told the inquiry that by the time the crew noticed the airspeed, when the helicopter was below 300 feet, it was “too late” to recover the aircraft.

Martin Richardson QC, who is leading the inquiry for the Crown, asked which factors he considered particularly relevant to the cause of the accident.

Mr Prior said the accident followed a chain of events including the fact that if the crew had been aware of the weather before they set off they might have made different decisions.

He told the FAI: “Having commenced this approach, the major factors, I believe, are the fact that they did not achieve a stable approach, and because they did not achieve a stable approach that made them more prone to any errors in scanning, and so the secondary factor here is that the crew did not see the change in the air speed, they did not see the nose pitching up and they did not see the low power set.”

Mr Prior also told the inquiry that the lack of a stabilised approach meant they were not compliant with the operations manual.

Mr Richardson asked about the training given to crew and passengers in relation to ditching, with Mr Prior saying his training in France was “a very realistic test” compared with the UK training.

He said: “The French like to have a cold pool, you are wearing just a thin cotton flying suit, and it is a very realistic test.

“The second you go into the water, you shiver and gasp. You don’t have a briefing beforehand. You have to immerse yourself completely for a minute, then swim along a rope and do all of these types of tasks.

“You were then dunked into the cold water in the dunker, you were not allowed to escape until you were tapped on the shoulder by a diver. It was a very long pause and you had to wait until your breath was about to run out and then escape.

“As a young, fit military pilot, I found that a very demanding task, but you could say that was the most realistic training I’d had.”

He said in the UK, the pool is reasonably warm, and you are given a thorough briefing before.

Having completed the same training that offshore workers received, Mr Prior said: “To have a reasonably warm pool is false, but if you are teaching people how to escape, you don’t want their first instinct to be to panic as they descend – so there’s a balance to strike between the realism of the training and the training itself.

“I believe if most people had to go through the French training, they would not choose to go offshore.”

Survivor Samuel Bull took his own life in London in 2017, which Sheriff Pyle said was “directly caused” by the crash.

The inquiry is being held virtually due to coronavirus measures.

A statement of agreed evidence read at the start of the inquiry confirmed that no mechanical fault was discovered with the helicopter, which was returning from the Borgsten Dolphin support vessel to Sumburgh Airport when it ditched.

The inquiry continues.

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