Offshore helicopter safety - Transport Committee Contents

1  Appendix A: Summary of meeting with Sumburgh crash survivors

1. On 10 April, 6 survivors of the August 2013, Sumburgh helicopter crash met with Members of the Transport Committee to discuss their experiences. The survivors described the accident itself and their involvement with the subsequent AAIB investigation.

Poor maintenance of safety equipment

2. Attendees began by describing the design flaws of the Super Puma helicopter and the poor condition of safety equipment on board. It was said that the Super Puma helicopter cannot carry both its full capacity of passengers and a full fuel load at the same time. This means Super Pumas are required to refuel more during operations. As helicopter crashes are more likely to occur during take-off and landing, additional refuelling inevitably leads to more risk.

3. There was strong agreement that the safety equipment on board was poorly maintained and not up to standard. This quickly became apparent when the helicopter impacted with the sea. Survival suits were poor quality and in some cases became a danger to life when they filled with water. Life jackets did not inflate correctly and straws designed for manual inflation were missing. The survivors stated that only two of the six flotation devices on the helicopter inflated.

4. One survivor, who at the time of the crash was seated next to a window, described his attempt to escape the aircraft. The tab designed to remove the window disintegrated in his hands. To remove the window he had to punch the window until it popped out. Only then were he and several others able to evacuate.

5. There was scepticism that safety equipment was regularly checked for weaknesses. The attendees did not know who should be held accountable for maintaining safety equipment or who they could report concerns to, although there was agreement that speaking out could undermine future work prospects. One cause of this is the relatively small size of the sector which adds pressure on workers not to speak out. The widely reported account of a Total boss and CHC pilot dismissing workers concerns about Super Pumas by telling passengers to "put on their big-boy pants" or leave the industry[90] was highlighted as evidence of a poor reporting culture. Some of the attendees had been present during this incident.

Emergency Breathing Systems

On 23 January the AAIB published a Special Bulletin on the Emergency Breathing System (EBS) supplied to the victims of the Sumburgh crash. The Bulletin revealed that the pre-flight safety briefing was not fully representative of the functionality of the EBS supplied. The briefing video suggested that individuals were required to breathe into the rebreather bag before the system could be used once submerged. However, the actual EBS supplied did not require this. Instead the EBS came with its own air supply which could be automatically discharged. The AAIB found that the mismatch between the safety video and EBS "may […] influence a passenger's decision on whether or not to use the EBS in an emergency situation."[91]

6. The attendees expressed anger at this discovery, with several describing its aftermath as a period of heavy psychological stress. Many of the survivors said that they had ignored the EBSs as there was not time to breathe into them before being submerged. If they had known this was not necessary the survivors felt confident the EBSs would have been used.

7. The attendees were pleased the Committee had opened its evidence session in Aberdeen with a line of questioning on this subject but were disappointed by the answers given by helicopter operators.[92] It was felt that a fundamental safety flaw had been brushed aside without serious consideration. It was also felt that the operators' temporary measure to correct the error was inadequate. After the AAIB's Special Bulletin was published, operators supplemented the flawed briefing video with a short paper outlining how the supplied EBS actually worked.

AAIB investigation and post-crash support

8. Following the crash, the AAIB had been in touch with each of the survivors and had taken statements. However, there was a perception that aside from this, survivors had been "left in the dark" as far as the rest of the investigation was concerned. They expressed distress at having to read latest AAIB findings in the media rather than being contacted directly and forewarned. Survivors said they had been told that they would be kept abreast of developments yet this had not happened and their telephone messages had not been returned.

9. There was also a concern that the AAIB's inquiry is not addressing several important issues. Survivors believe the investigation is too focussed on technical or mechanical causes and is ignoring a wider complacency amongst operators towards safety standards. Attendees also stated that soon after the crash there had been personnel changes amongst CHC's engineers. They suggested this may have lead the AAIB to take statements from engineers who were not responsible for the crash helicopter before the accident. To rectify omissions in current investigations, the attendees said a full public inquiry was the only way to restore confidence amongst the offshore work force.

10. Most of the attendees spoke of ongoing psychological trauma and episodes of depression, although they do have access to professional psychological help. Financial support is more patchy with some survivors still receiving a wage while not able to work and others not. This depends on employment status and contractual arrangements. Contractors have little or no financial support.

Measures to improve offshore helicopter safety

11. The attendees had a number of practical suggestions for improving safety following a crash at sea in conditions with poor visibility. It was suggested that LED lights surrounding egress windows would make it easier to escape quickly. They recommended red LEDs could indicate a closed window which could then change to green once the window had been removed. They stated older variants of the Super Puma helicopter had a similar feature but this had been removed in subsequent models. They also said that their survival suits were too dark making it difficult to identify each other. The addition of luminous tape around rescue ropes and other equipment would have helped significantly.

12. When asked about the adequacy of their training for North Sea conditions, the survivors viewed it as insufficient, especially when compared to Norwegian standards. They explained that training in a heated swimming pool, in an aircraft model with large windows for escape, bears no relation to actual conditions. They stated this has not always been the case; in the past training was conducted in sea temperatures at -6 degrees. In Norway, training is significantly more demanding and is conducted at sea.

90   Daily Mail, If you can't live with the risk don't work offshore': Oil workers were told to put on their 'big-boy pants' at safety meeting just weeks before Shetland helicopter crash, accessed 2 July 2014 Back

91   AAIB, S1/2014 (January 2014), page 3 Back

92   Qq 2-9 Back

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Prepared 8 July 2014