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North Sea, air safety and Brexit

Does the political fight about who controls safety in the North Sea reveal just how difficult Brexit is going to be?

Crew change. arbyreed / Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Political writer James Cusick worked on a North Sea oil platform during his early 20s, and has reported on the major successes and disasters of an industry which remains economically important to Scotland and the UK. But is the North Sea facing a new fight over who controls safety? Has it become a political battleground revealing just how difficult Brexit is going to be?

Over the last 40 years almost 70 million people have flown in helicopters between the mainland and offshore oil and gas rigs in the UK side of the North Sea. That works out at over 8 million flights ferrying a skilled workforce from mainly Scottish airports over some of the most treacherous seas in the world.

In the early 1980s, I contributed to these statistics when working on one of the deep-water platforms. Before each trip I remember an adrenalin-fed focus that took in every word of the flight safety briefing. That’s still how it’s done, even for seasoned oil-workers.

Over those last four decades, accidents have claimed the lives of around 130 oil staff and flight crew. While the total fatal and non-fatal accidents is short of 100, this number offers little comfort if getting to work involves using a helicopter with a safety record you believe has been compromised.

Critical to any decision to boarding an aircraft is the reassurance of safety. But which organisation is monitoring, assessing and continually re-evaluating airworthiness? That basic question is not easily answered at the moment when it comes to the North Sea.  

You might be forgiven for assuming there would be one global, supra-national standard, allied to local regulations. In which case you would be wrong.

Following the accident in Norway last year of a Super Puma 225 and the loss of 13 lives, investigators began a forensic analysis of what had happened. The 225 and its close variant, the 332, were grounded while detective work took place.

Subsequently, the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) decided that what they had discovered, allied to a series of protective safety orders, meant “an acceptable level of safety” had been restored.  EASA said Airbus, who makes the Super Puma, had followed all their recommendations and enough had been learned to merit the “return to service of the fleet”. 

Most of the world’s military and air-sea rescue Super Pumas are now back in the air. The military users include the Saudis, Germany, France, Japan, Brazil, China and others. Oil companies in China, Vietnam and elsewhere, are flying their personnel on Super Pumas; and national search and rescue operations in China, Japan, Spain, South Korea use the helicopter, as do seven world leaders including the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. Yet, thanks to the helicopter being grounded by both the civil aviation authorities of UK and Norway, no Super Puma is currently flying in the North Sea.

What is acceptable to EASA, the Cologne-based bureau of the European Union which regulates air safety, remains unacceptable to the regulators in the UK and Norway.  This contradiction cannot be good for an industry that supports 330,000 UK jobs and remains vital to the Scottish economy.

The “root cause” of the Norwegian crash has remained elusive. A 225 carrying oil workers from a Statoil platform crashed near the island of Turoy. Witnesses described a mid-air explosion and seeing the rotor blade detach from the helicopter. All 11 passengers and the two flight crew were killed.

Pilot error was ruled out. Accident detectives focused heavily on a crack in the rim of a gear in the main gearbox. Although the “root cause” according EASA, remained elusive, new engineering specifications recommended to Airbus were followed and a European directive allowing the helicopters to fly was issued in October.

Was that enough for the UK and Norwegian authorities? No. The involvement of gear failure echoed problems of a 332 accident in 2009 off Peterhead where 16 men were killed. The Fatal Accidident Inquiry that followed however concluded that the crash could have been prevented with a better maintenance regime. 

The Canadian company, CHC, which operated the Turoy flight, also found themselves in familiar territory. In 2013 they grounded all Super Pumas when one of their 332 crashed near Sumburgh airport in the Shetlands. Four people lost their lives. No evidence of engineering failure was found.

Britain's CAA maintains the Turoy accident is still an investigation-in-progress, and they want more information. A recent CAA statement suggests the UK and Norway are “united” in determining it is they, and not EASA, that will decide on “the safety of those who travel on offshore helicopter flights.”

The danger here is that helicopter safety has become a political football to be kicked between national and international organisations. Norway recently announced it will ignore any helicopter regulations from an outside body, claiming only Oslo can deal with its peculiarly local weather conditions and the often treacherous business of flying in the North Sea. This carries a Brexit echo of “take back control”.

The Super Puma 225, once the North Sea's "workhorse", remains mothballed. Oil and gas workers have had to put their faith in another aircraft, the Sikorsky S-92.

Operators are leasing more 92s to fill the gap left by 31 grounded Super Pumas.  Yet the S-92 is not problem-free.  In 2017, an S-92 crashed at Black Rock Island off the coast of Ireland, killing all four crew. A preliminary report by Ireland’s Air Accident Investigation Unit found the tail of the helicopter had struck rocky surfaces on the western end of the island before losing control. Investigations are ongoing.

In 2016, an S-92 spun out of control during an emergency on a North Sea rig. Though all 11 passengers and crew were not injured, Sikorsky grounded all S-92 aircraft worldwide for safety checks. Operators were instructed by the manufacturers, Lockheed-Martin, to carry out the checks immediately, and to focus on the tail rotors of the aircraft. The knock-on effect was severe disruption to North Sea travel, already hit by the Super Puma ban. 

Earlier this year the US Federal Aviation administration issued an emergency airworthiness directive following three reports of S-92 pilots losing tail rotor control caused by failed bearings. They said S-92s must undergo inspections every 10 hours. 

Before the Turoy crash, the North Sea’s fleet of long-range helicopters was dominated by Super Pumas and S-92s. A mix of aircraft in a dangerous industry where safety is paramount, is not co-incidental, it is essential.  Any further incident involving a S-92 could leave the North Sea without a long-range transport helicopter. Remote oil fields would be left out of reach.

Norway's grounding of Super Pumas, pending the final report from its own air accident investigators, is understandable. Harder to justify would be a never-ever ban on the 225, allied to hints that it will not be swayed by other regulators. Also difficult to comprehend  is the UK CAA's hard-line opposition, despite EASA stating clearly it considers safety has been restored.

So has helicopter airworthiness and the ability of the North Sea rigs to continue drilling for oil and gas, emerged as one of the first fall-guys in the push towards Brexit? No debate on safety is ever wasted, but the North Sea should not become a battleground that helps defines what ‘take back control’ actually means.

About the author

James Cusick was, until recently, the political correspondent of The Independent and The Independent on Sunday. As an experienced member of the lobby, he has previously worked at The Sunday Times and the BBC. 

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