All Super Puma helicopter flights to offshore platforms have been suspended after one of the aircraft crashed in the North Sea off Shetland on Friday, killing four people on board.
Operator CHC took the decision in the wake of an emergency meeting of the Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG), which said the aircraft should be grounded until there is “sufficient factual information” to resume the service.
A CHC-operated Super Puma AS332 L2 helicopter is thought to have suffered a catastrophic loss of power as it came in to land at Sumburgh Airport, on its way from the Borgstein Dolphin platform.
It was carrying 16 workers on behalf of oil company Total, as well as two crew. Four of the passengers - Duncan Munro, 46, from County Durham, George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin and 59-year-old Gary McCrossan, from Inverness, died in the crash.
A recovery operation to retrieve the last of the four bodies from the wreckage of the aircraft resumed at first light on Sunday. A coastguard tug vessel and the Bibby Polaris, a diving support vessel, are using heavy lifting gear to raise the helicoper so it can be transported by sea and road to Fraserburgh.
The helicopter came down off Fitful Head, two miles west of Sumburgh, at 6.20pm on Friday, having lost contact with air traffic control just minutes before it was due to land.
Two of the 14 survivors were being treated at Lerwick’s Gilbert Bain Hospital on Shetland on Saturday night. The other 12 have returned safely to Aberdeen.
CHC said it would follow the recommendation of the HSSG and ground all its Eurocopter Super Puma helicopters while it “took stock” of Friday’s accident.
The company has temporarily suspended flights of all its Super Puma models: the AS332 L2, the AS332 L/L1 and the EC225. However, it added that the latter two were different in construction and operation from the type of helicopter involved in the crash and should be able to resume flying soon.
After meeting on Saturday the HSSG said: "The HSSG, supported by the Step Change in Safety Leadership Team, has taken the precautionary measure of recommending temporary suspension of all Super Puma commercial passenger flights to and from offshore oil and gas installations within the UK."
The accident is the fifth in four years in Scottish waters involving Super Puma aircraft. The most serious was in April 2009, when all 16 people on board an AS332 L2 died as it ditched in the sea north-east of Peterhead.
Last year the EC225 model was grounded following two ditching incidents involving 33 passengers and crew, all of whom were rescued safely. The helicopters only returned to service two weeks ago after manufacturer Eurocopter brought in extra safety checks.
Audrey Wood, mother of 27-year-old Stuart Wood, who died in the 2009 crash, told STV News more must be done to safeguard those working offshore.
Mrs Wood said: "By the sound of things, there have been no lessons learned at all.
"Something needs to be done to reassure the men that need to go out to the oil rigs that they have a safe mode of transport and can come home safely to their families."
Union leaders have called for the entire Super Puma fleet to be grounded until the circumstances of Friday’s crash have been fully investigated.
Pat Rafferty, Scottish secretary of the Unite union, said: "This is the fifth major incident in the last four years involving Super Puma helicopters in the UK offshore industry and the second resulting in fatalities. It's unacceptable and it can't go on.
"A full investigation must now take place and the industry's helicopter operators must use every means at their disposal to demonstrate that its fleet is fit for purpose."
Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, said: "The entire Super Puma fleet must remain grounded until the causes of this latest event are established and dealt with thoroughly to the unions’ satisfaction and we will support any member who refuses to board any suspect aircraft type in light of this disaster.”
A team of investigators from the UK Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has been sent to Aberdeen to begin examining the circumstances of the crash.
A spokeswoman said: "In exercise of his powers, the Chief Inspector of the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) has ordered that an investigation into the accident be carried out in accordance with the Civil Aviation (Investigation of Air Accidents and Incidents) Regulations 1996.
"The sole objective of the investigation shall be to determine the cause(s) of the accident with the intention of preventing a recurrence. It shall not be the purpose to apportion blame or liability."
Industry body Oil & Gas UK has arranged a meeting of operators and major contractors tomorrow to discuss ways of minimising the impact of the suspension on the offshore workforce.
Finance secretary John Swinney said he did not expect the suspension of flights, which allows emergency flights to continue, would have an immediate impact on oil and gas production.
He said: “We are continuing to work closely with all partner agencies who have been involved in this rescue and recovery operation, and I have been closely liaising with trade unions representatives about the safety of staff using the helicopters.
“The North Sea Helicopter Task Force met this afternoon and I understand that this has resulted in a temporary suspension of the flights by the Eurocopter Super Puma family as a precautionary measure.”
“We do not anticipate that this temporary suspension will have any immediate impact on the production of oil and gas in the North Sea, but we will continue to monitor this situation closely.”