The CHC operates 28 EC225 Super Pumas (as pictured) and 36 AS332 Super Pumas (Image © Eurocopter)

What is wrong with the Super Puma?

The CHC operates 28 EC225 Super Pumas (as pictured) and 36 AS332 Super Pumas (Image © Eurocopter)
The CHC operates 28 EC225 Super Pumas (as pictured) and 36 AS332 Super Pumas (Image © Eurocopter)

Astonishing news this week. Roughly a month after the global stand-down order of the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma was lifted, a similar helicopter – this time an older and smaller AS332 – crashed into the North Sea. The ditch, killing four of the 18 people on board, reminds many of two offshore incidents in 2012 which caused the flight prohibition to the newer and larger EC225 Super Puma.

August 23, 2013. The pilot on board a CHC Scotia AS332L2 Super Puma releases a distress signal about 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) south of the southern tip of the Shetland islands. CHC is one of the world’s largest non-military helicopter operators, with more than 240 aircraft in about 30 countries. With its headquarters in Vancouver, Canada, the company’s choppers are a common sight in the North Sea area where they mainly transport personnel to and from oil and gas platforms.

Back to the the Shetlands on the unfortunate Friday where the CHC signal had been picked up at Sumburg airport. The air traffic controller on duty subsequently looses all contact with the chopper at 18:20 local time, when the Super Puma is about two miles west of the field. The Super Puma was on its way to Sumburgh, having taken off Aberdeen Dice airport earlier that day to visit two oil rigs on the way.

At 18:30 the Shetland Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre was advised by the Air Rescue Coordination Centre that they had lost contact with a Super Puma helicopter with 18 people on board traveling from the Borgsten Dolphin ridge to Sumburgh. Co-ordinators of the Shetland Coastguard immediately request assistance of air and sea assets.

A 130 miles (210 km) away, personnel at Royal Air Force air station Lossiemouth in Northern Scotland, directs the crew of a 202 Squadron D Flight bright yellow Westland Sea King helicopter to the accident area. Subsequently the privately owned search-and-rescue service Bond sends two of its choppers and almost immediately cancels its open day planned for August 24th. At the ports of Aith and Lerwick all-weather lifeboats head out to sea, about 40 respectively 20 miles (65 resp 32 km) from the last reported location of the ditched Super Puma. The RAF Sea King picks up medical specialists from the Aberdeen Royal Infirmary and ferries them to Lerwick at the Shetlands.

The day ends with 14 people injured, one death and three still missing at sea. Immediately the discussion of the safety of the Super Puma picks up in several western media, including the Norwegian quality newspaper Aftenposten.

An Eurocopter EC 225 Super Puma Mark II on a North Sea platform close to Bergen, Norway, on September 27, 2008. (Image Nicolas Gouhier/Abacapress.com © Eurocopter)
An Eurocopter EC 225 Super Puma Mark II on a North Sea platform close to Bergen, Norway, on September 27, 2008. (Image Nicolas Gouhier/Abacapress.com © Eurocopter)

The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) had just validated safety measures to the Super Pumas gear shaft box and main gear box emergency lubrication system on July 10th which were behind the crashes of two EC225 helicopters in the North Sea in 2012. On July 19th, the EC225s return to full flight status worldwide. However, most media missed an essential part of the information: a Super Puma is not always the same Super Puma. This was quickly reflected by CHC.

“We believe that engineering and operating differences associated with AS332L/L1 and EC225 aircraft warrant continuing flights with those aircraft”, a company spokesperson wrotes in a press release. “But in order to give us an opportunity to take stock of any implications associated with Friday’s accident, we will not fly AS332Ls/L1s/L2s anywhere in the world on Sunday, August 25, except for life-or-death search-and-rescue missions.”

Looking at the recent stand-down of the newer EC225 type and last week’s AS332 crash near the Shetlands it is easy to ask What is wrong with the Super Puma? But with both the stand-down and the crash happening in the North Sea the focus could very well be What is wrong with the Super Puma in North Sea offshore operations.

The answer might be nothing more than a temporarily broken image and tough luck just after the break. The EC225s worldwide alone accumulated 300,000 flight hours (source: Eurocopter). With so many Super Pumas of all types flying worldwide in both civilian and military roles sooner or later an accident is statistically about the happen.

© 2013 AIRheads’ Marcel Burger