Sunday, December 01, 2013

Safety concerns raised after police helicopter crash

There have been concerns raised over the safety of the helicopter which was involved in the tragedy which claimed at least 8 lives on Friday [29th November].

According to reports the Eurocopter EC135 Type 2 has been the subject of two recent European Aviation Safety Authority (EASA) emergency airworthiness directives.

While it is still too early to determine whether the crash was a result of a mechanical failure, air crash investigators will likely be looking at whether there were problems with the aircraft itself.

Safety fears

It has emerged that the helicopter, which was operated for Police Scotland by Bond Air Services Ltd, was one of dozens of aircraft grounded in 2012 over safety fears. Should a mechanical failure be found to be behind Friday's tragedy it could have far reaching ramifications.

With a cruising speed of up to 254 km/h [158 mph], the twin-engined EC135 has become popular with police and ambulance services. Should they be grounded due to safety concerns it could have a significant impact on how the Air Ambulance Service respond to emergencies and how the police track suspects and monitor situations on the ground.


Eight people died when the twin-engined EC135 fell from the sky and crashed through the roof of the crowded Clutha pub in Glasgow city centre, Scotland. Some 40 others were injured some with serious injuries ranging from broken limbs, head injuries and lacerations.

More than 48 hours after the crash there remained some concern that some individuals might still be buried in the debris.


Safety investigators and firefighters were working to lift the aircraft from the pub on Sunday having already removed the rotor blades and taken them away for forensic examination. Meanwhile the EASA, which has the authority to ground helicopters that are found to have technical design flaws, said the agency is "working closely" with Eurocopter and investigators but has not ruled out grounding the EC135 Type 2. A spokesman told reporters that it is "prepared to take any action based on facts to ensure that the type of helicopter in question continues to be operated safely".

Previous concerns

On 23rd September, the EASA warned of "stiffness" in the "main rotor actuators" of the variant, which could lead to "reduced control of the helicopter". And in May last year, the agency reported a "crack detected" on parts of the "main rotor hub shaft", which could "lead to loss of the helicopter". This problem was first reported on an EC135 aircraft operated by Bond Air Services for the Scottish Air Ambulance Service.

The EASA alert led to the temporary grounding of all the 22 EC135 aircraft operated by Bond Air Services in the UK, including the Police Scotland aircraft that crashed on Friday, then operated by Strathclyde Police.

In early November the transport select committee launched an investigation into the safety of helicopter flights in Scotland. Following the crash, a spokesman for the British Airline Pilots' Association said that the number of number of recent helicopter incidents in Scotland was a "matter for concern" and called for the committee to "look into the circumstances around" the accident.

Other incidents

On 23rd August this year four people were killed when an AS332L2 Super Puma crashed into the sea about 2 km off the Shetland Islands.

Operated by Bond Offshore Helicopters, the aircraft was similar to one which crashed a few miles off Peterhead in Scotland in April 2009 which killed all 16 people on board. Investigators concluded that the main cause of that accident was the catastrophic failure of the main rotor gearbox.

The aircraft was manufactured by EADS, which owns Eurocopter, and the company is concerned that fingers are already being unfairly pointed at it for the Glasgow crash. However the Air Accidents Investigation Branch found that there was no technical fault to blame for the Super Puma incident.

Finger pointing

But with some experts pointing to a possible loss of power in Friday's incident, finger pointing may be the least of concerns. Phil Giles, a former air accident investigator, said, "One of the first things you notice from the images from Glasgow is one of the rotor blades sticking up in the air, which suggests there was very little power on the helicopter when it crashed. So it looks like the engines had probably stopped."

"From everything I've seen, it suggests the pilot had more of a problem on his hands than just a power failure, though, as the aircraft doesn't seem to have entered autorotation, which is the helicopter equivalent of a glide, and it dropped liked a stone."

Financial implications

Police forces and Air Ambulance Services have already been affected by cost cutting exercises. In England and Wales police helicopters in England and Wales, though not Scotland, were reorganised in a £15m cost-cutting measure into a single National Police Air Service. Its fleet now comprises 23 helicopters, including 14 of the EC135 Type 2 aircraft involved in the latest crash.

A grounding of half its fleet could be very costly indeed, especially if it were indefinite. Air Ambulance Services would be even harder hit since they rely primarily on charitable donations and sponsorship rather than funding from central government. Friday's incident may not be good for Bond Offshore Helicopters or Eurocopter and its subsidiaries should their record on safety be further called into question.

[Sky News / BBC / Guardian / Independent / FT / Daily Mail

Pictured: a Eurocopter EC135 Type 2 operated by Essex Police and of the same type that crashed in Glasgow.

tvnewswatch, London, UK

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