Specialist aviation lawyer, and former RAF pilot, says the preliminary accident report raises many serious questions about this avoidable tragedy.
Jim Morris, air accident litigation expert at law firm Ashfords LLP, who has extensive experience in helicopter and fixed wing disasters caused by collisions with terrain, has analysed the preliminary accident report of the tragic Irish Coastguard helicopter crash. The report highlights that there are crucial flight safety questions as to why a sophisticated helicopter, flown by two experienced aircrew, did not identify a collision course with a 282 feet high lighthouse island.
The preliminary report that was published on 13 April 2017 states that on Tuesday 14 March 2017, a Sikorsky S-92 Irish Coastguard helicopter known as Rescue 116 (R116), was tasked to support another helicopter that was rescuing an injured man from a fishing vessel off the coast of Co Mayo. At just after 11pm, R116 departed from Dublin airport with a crew of four - two pilots and two rear crew (a winch operator and a winchman). The pilots decided to refuel at Blacksod Lighthouse, located at Blacksod Bay on the west coast of Ireland. On reaching a point off the west coast, the pilots commenced a descent to refuel at Blacksod. During the descent, the helicopter tracked westerly over the sea and on reaching a height of 200 feet above the sea it turned left and the Captain selected a heading to a waypoint on the helicopters flight management system. This waypoint is close to Black Rock Island, which is the largest of a group of rocks around 9 miles west of Blacksod Bay, has a 50 feet high lighthouse and a total height of 282 feet above sea level. The helicopter flew at 200 feet and at a speed of 75 knots on a collision course towards Black Rock. Around 13 seconds prior to impact with the island, one of the rear crew (possibly the winch operator using the aircraft high definition camera system), identified an island ahead and warned the pilots to turn right. A heading change was instigated and two seconds prior to impact the helicopter rapidly pitched nose up. The helicopter impacted with the island then lost control and sadly crashed into the sea. The two pilots were killed and the two rear crew remain missing.
Jim Morris is Head of Aviation at Ashfords and specialises in representing the victims of air accidents. Jim gained significant experience in low level flying over land and sea during his military career and he has litigated a number of cases involving helicopters and fixed wing aircraft colliding with terrain, including the CHC Eurocopter crash on final approach to Shetland in 2013 and the Pamir Airways crash into a mountain ridge in Afghanistan in 2010.
On the preliminary accident report, Jim commented: "The prompt publication of this preliminary report is welcomed and it gives a crucial insight into a shocking chain of events and the extensive work that still needs to be done to determine why this helicopter flew into a 282 feet rock during a routine approach to refuel.
"The Irish Coastguard helicopters are operated by the CHC helicopter services company and for the approach to Blacksod the crew were using the operator's route guide for Blacksod. The geographic point on this route guide at which the arrival into Blacksod was to commence was a point close to Black Rock Island, yet it appears that the pilots were unaware of this significant obstacle for the approach and the Cockpit Voice Recorder (CVR) recording contains no reference by the crew to the presence of a lighthouse or terrain at Black Rock during their briefing for the approach. In addition, the CVR indicated that the Captain and co-pilot had not flown to Blacksod recently. This raises serious concerns about the training currency of the flight crew and the information provided in the operator's route guides.
"The decision of the air accident investigators to issue a safety recommendation that the operator reviews its route guides to enhance information, including obstacle heights, is an important start to improve the flight safety of these operations."
The preliminary report also focuses on the helicopter's Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System (EGPWS). The EGPWS is a system designed to warn the pilots if they are flying towards terrain to give them sufficient time to avoid collision. Astonishingly, the accident investigators identified that the Black Rock lighthouse obstacle is not contained in the EGPWS obstacle and terrain database.
Jim continues: "Clearly a coastguard helicopter that operates at low level over the sea / coast at night and in difficult weather conditions needs an EGPWS system that can warn of all islands and terrain in the area in which the helicopter is operated. The air accident investigators indicate that they continue to engage with the US manufacturer (Honeywell) to fully understand why this crucial obstacle data was missing. In addition, they will need to determine whether the configuration of the helicopter and the EGPWS system during the approach to the island would have provided an adequate warning if the obstacle data had been present.
"It is astonishing that the risk of collision with the lighthouse island was only identified by a crew member at the rear of the helicopter 13 seconds before impact. It is crucial that the full chain of events that contributed to this avoidable tragedy are promptly identified so that the aviation industry, operators and authorities can implement all necessary measures to prevent a similar tragedy in the future."