By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON Aug 29 A British safety group on
Thursday ended a six-day suspension of flights by Super Puma
helicopters in the North Sea, imposed after four oil rig
contractors were killed in a crash last week.
Although the cause of last Friday's fatal accident near
Scotland's Shetland Islands remains unknown, the Helicopter
Safety Steering Group (HSSG) said there was no evidence to
continue a suspension on flights put in place on Saturday.
The grounding of all types of Super Puma helicopters, which
make up about half of a 75-strong fleet used to carry workers to
and from UK offshore platforms, left North Sea operators trying
to find alternative ways of transporting staff and supplies.
HSSG spokesman Les Linklater said several aviation
authorities, a pilots' union and helicopter operators themselves
had expressed confidence in the aircraft made by Eurocopter, a
unit of Europe's top aerospace group EADS.
He said three types of Super Pumas - L, L1 and EC225s -
would return immediately to service but the Super Puma L2 model
involved in Friday's fatal crash would initially be
re-introduced for non-passenger operations only.
"There is no evidence to support a continuation of the
temporary suspension of the entire Super Puma fleet," Linklater
said in a statement following a two-day meeting.
The crash was the fifth accident in four years in the area
involving different models of Super Pumas which included a fatal
crash of an L2 in April 2009 in which 16 people were killed.
It came as the helicopter industry tries to rebuild
confidence after two EC225 aircraft ditched in the North Sea
last year due to gearbox problems and the aircraft was suspended
in the area for almost 10 months until July this year.
The North Sea is one of the world's largest oil and gas
producing regions with almost 57,000 workers travelling to
offshore facilities in the area last year and safety issues are
watched closely by regulators worldwide.
BLACK BOX FOUND
Britain's Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB) said on
Thursday that a search team had found the black box from
Friday's crash with flight data and cockpit recordings which
would now be examined to try to establish the cause.
The AAIB said the helicopter appeared upright and intact
when it entered the water, slowing down before it crashed.
The union Unite said the continued grounding of the L2 fleet
was the bare minimum the industry could do until the recovered
black box's data fully established what happened.
"Confidence has been shattered and the industry needs to
provide substantive evidence - not opinion - to its workers
demonstrating the airworthiness of the helicopters that are now
returning to operations," Unite Scottish Secretary Pat Rafferty
said in statement.
An online petition urging for all Super Pumas to be banned
has gained more than 12,000 signatures and a Facebook page
called "Destroy The Super Pumas" has 37,500 likes.
Linklater said the accident was a tragedy but there are
almost 16,000 people offshore currently, including about 250
people who have spent more than 21 days offshore.
"We have a duty of care to all offshore workers both in
terms of their safety and their well-being," he said, adding a
sympathetic approach would be taken to workers who did not feel
they could fly.
The suspension of Super Puma flights was causing delays and
flight backlogs as the rest of the fleet, comprised mainly of
U.S. manufactured Sikorsky Aircraft, a unit of United
Technologies Corp, tried to meet demands.
But the industry is used to short-term disruptions caused by
bad weather and changes schedules to shift non-essential
maintenance activity to reduce impact on production.
Spokesmen for France's Total, BP and
Royal Dutch Shell said production was not impacted.