IT IS NOW over a year since the Norwegian and UK civil aviation authorities grounded the Super Puma 225 and its close variant the 332 following a fatal crash in Norway. Safety of crews and passengers must be the primary concern of the investigators but the long delay in reaching a conclusion – when other agencies have cleared the Super puma to fly – is raising questions about the length of time to reach a conclusion.
The reason the long awaited decision is so critical is not just because operators want the reassurance that the Super puma is considered airworthy and safe to fly, but because there is only one other helicopter available to transport the thousands of workers that make the journey in the course of a year – and were that aircraft to have an accident and be grounded at the same time, then the UK’s oil and gas industry would face a logistics nightmare it does not wish to contemplate. The only remaining way to ferry workers to platforms would by boat.
The Super Puma has been plying its trade in the North Sea for over a decade and was the workhorse of the aviation industry in taking employees back and forward to rigs. An accident in 2009, where a Super Puma 332 L2crashed off Peterhead, killing all sixteen passengers and crew, was traced back to a fault in the main gearbox. In April 2016 a further unexplained crash involving a failure of a Super Puma 225’s main gearbox off the coast of Norway resulted in the deaths of thirteen crew and workers. The CAA grounded indefinitely all UK-based Super Puma 225s and its close variant the 332 L2 while investigations were held.
The initial finding of the Norwegian Accident and Investigation Board (AIBN) was metal fatigue in the aircraft’s gearbox causing the rotors to separate from the aircraft and this was confirmed in the most recent interim report issued at the end of April this year.
The AIBN had reported its analysis found no material conformity issues or discrepancies in the manufacturing process. Investigations established that the main rotor gearbox had been involved in a road accident during its transportation in 2015. The investigators were, however, unable to find any physical evidence that could link that incident to the subsequent development of fatigue cracks in the gearbox. It had been inspected, repaired and installed some 260 flight hours prior to the helicopter’s crash.
Crucially, the AIBN also found that the Airbus servicing procedures were not at fault and could not have detected the sign of metal fatigue. It was a tragic accident, but human error or omission was not to blame. Airbus has since introduced new procedures that are designed to ensure such potentially catastrophic failures can be identified before they happen.
Use of the Super Puma was suspended by the European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) temporarily after the AIBN’s initial report last June, but their use was reinstated in all but Norway and the UK pending final decisions by AIBN and CAA. Attention has now turned towards the CAA and what decision it will take regarding the Super Puma.
Meantime the only available helicopter of adequate size, the Sikorski S92 has had to take the burden of all passenger transport flights to the rigs. Unfortunately the S92 has had its own share of accidents, giving cause to believe that it too could be grounded if a serious incident required investigation.
Accidents around the world, some with the loss of life, have caused the S92 to be grounded intermittently. An S92 spun out of control on a North Sea oil platform, fortunately without injury to its occupants but Sikorski grounded the aircraft worldwide temporarily while investigations were held. An S92 crashed in Ireland killing all four occupants, while in the United States three incidents caused a federal airworthiness directive to require safety checks after every ten hours of flying. Each accident or reported incident involved problems with the tail rotor.
If the CAA does not give the Super Puma the all clear and there was a fatal accident involving an S92 that brought about its grounding too, the oil and gas industry would have an immediate logistics problem. How would it relieve and deliver workers to rigs? Over the last forty years, the industry has grown alongside the development of helicopters as the natural mode of transport, with some eight million journeys ferrying some seventy million people. There is no existing maritime alternative but the use of ships would be the only remedy until any helicopter could be cleared to fly again.
A major airlift involving military and coastguard helicopters might provide a short term fix but that would mean the redeployment of already overstretched naval resources and could not provide the 24 hour 365 days a year cover. The likelihood is that to have the numbers ships from around the world would need to be chartered and new transfer procedures from ship to rig instigated, complete with their own health and safety procedures and monitoring. The transfer could take twelve hours a trip, meaning that a sizeable fleet of ships would be required. The logistical problem would be large and costly to overcome just at a time when there are serious financial pressures on the North Sea oil and gas producers.
Ironically, most of the military and air-sea-rescue Super Puma variants are flying, used by countries from France to Brazil, Germany to Saudi, Japan and China. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, no less, uses a Super Puma on her official engagements while oil companies in seas and oceans around the world use Super Pumas to ferry their staff. Only the North Sea is beyond bounds for the Super Puma.
The delay in hearing from the Norwegian and UK authorities, while other aviation boards such as EASA and the US Federal Aviation Administration have cleared the Super Puma to fly, has led to growing concern that a turf war is developing between competing or overlapping authorities. There is no global authority, simply national authorities and the European Union’s EASA, creating a range of different standards and certifications that make for confusion and varying decisions.
Back in Britain and Norway the clock is still ticking while the oil and gas industry remains on the edge of a logistics and economic catastrophe, waiting for the investigators to reach a conclusion with only the S92 cleared to fly. For the industry and aviation companies a decision cannot come too soon.
Brian Monteith is editor of ThinkScotland.org