How Norfolk came close to another helicopter tragedy last November

Norfolk came close to another helicopter tragedy in November last year,  two months before the USAF helicopter crash at Cley. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY Norfolk came close to another helicopter tragedy in November last year, two months before the USAF helicopter crash at Cley. PHOTO: ANTONY KELLY

Friday, July 11, 2014
9:36 AM

Norfolk came close to another helicopter tragedy, two months before four US airmen died at Cley, when an aircraft carrying eight gas platform workers descended to within 50ft of the water.

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The helicopter was travelling from an off-shore platform in the North Sea to Norwich Airport when the incident occurred at about 8.20pm on November 6 last year.

In what has been described by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) as a “serious incident”, the twin-piloted Eurocopter EC155B1 was eventually able to land at Norwich after the captain was able to arrest the aircraft’s high rate of descent and climb to normal cruise height.

The AAIB report states that, “Shortly after takeoff from an off-shore platform at night, the helicopter entered a series of extreme pitch excursions which resulted in the airspeed reducing below 20knots (about 23mph), followed by a descent.

“The flight crew was eventually able to recover to normal flight. The helicopter had descended to within approximately 50ft of the sea surface.

“The investigation concluded that a combination of technical and organisational factors had pre-disposed the flight crew to believing that the helicopter was not performing correctly, which led them to depart from normal operating parameters.

“This resulted in the crew rapidly becoming disorientated to the extent that their ability to control the helicopter safely was compromised. Several safety actions have been taken by the helicopter operator.”

The helicopter was operating a personnel flight to the Clipper South gas production platform, about 100km east of the Lincolnshire coast, in the North Sea.

It had departed on its outbound flight from Norwich Airport at 7.25pm on November 6 with two flight crew and five passengers on board.

Ten passengers boarded the helicopter for the return flight to Norwich. However, after problems lifting the helicopter from the helideck, two passengers were off-loaded, reducing the total to eight.

The report stated that after 28 minutes on the helideck, the commander carried out a successful takeoff. But almost immediately after takeoff, both pilots perceived that the helicopter was not performing correctly.

The report found that the captain’s decision to select an exaggerated nose-down attitude just after the aircraft had taken off was “made out of concern for the helicopter’s apparently poor performance”.

This arose “because of the weighing and fuel gauging errors which had existed undetected for some time”.

The helicopter landed at Norwich Airport 47 minutes after takeoff.

The AAIB is not revealing the exact location of the incident.

The event occurred about two months before four US airmen died when their helicopter was brought down by a strike from displaced geese, on January 7.

The report into that crash by the AIB revealed the fatal impact of last December’s storm surge, and found that the downed US Pave Hawk’s pilot and co-pilot were knocked unconscious after three geese smashed through its windscreen.

Meanwhile, aviation lawyers acting for the loved ones of a member of the crew who died in the crash said the report has put a spotlight on the safety guidance regarding low level flights over nature reserves.

Jim Morris, a partner in Irwin Mitchell’s aviation law team, said: “In light of the fact that the January 2014 UK bird activity map indicated low bird activity over the Cley Marshes, when in fact a flock of geese was there at the time of the accident, indicates that there may be measures that could help prevent a similar accident in the future. One such measure may be for the MOD to consider imposing more restrictions in relation to low-level flights over nature reserves.”

Have you been involved in a near-miss incident in the area? Email david.bale2@archant.co.uk

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