"WHISKY GALORE" - Tim Cousins
My ditching story begins like so many others with an engine failure followed by a forced ditching, and subsequent qualification to our very exclusive club.
Where the story differs from that of many of my fellow shoal members, is that although the two events occurred to the same aircraft, they were separated by a period of exactly three weeks.
I’d been flying the EC225 Super Puma helicopters out of Aberdeen for the Oil & Gas industry for about 5 years and in that time had ticked off my fair share of items from the Emergency Checklist, as comes with ‘character building experience’.
On one such ‘typical’ North Sea day (full cloud cover at all operating levels and no chance of seeing the sun!) I was returning from a routine ‘rig-run’ with a highly experienced ex-senior service colleague. Being vectored around with a number of other aircraft onto the Instrument Landing System, the left hand engine decided it wasn’t going to ‘play’ whilst in cloud at 4000 feet.
Naturally we all practice for such events but it still comes as a little surprise and always when you least expect it! After that millisecond when the shock has subsided the many hours in the simulator, training for such an eventuality, take over and the rest becomes automatic.
When we had shut the aircraft down, I was met on the apron by a superior who warned me that the passengers, currently waiting in the arrivals lounge, were rather restless. It is customary for the captain to debrief the passengers whenever something occurs on a flight and I hoped that afterwards they were more convinced than I was, that there really was ‘nothing to worry about’.
According to the local press afterwards ‘we were in freefall for 6 seconds until the pilot started the backup engine’. Such imagination always puts a smile on my face but served as a timely reminder that the majority of our passengers have a healthy dose of fear and ignorance, in equal measures, of what we do.
Roll the clock forward exactly three weeks to the 10th May 2012 and the memory of that event was receding nicely into the category of ‘done that’…
Whilst mulling over, with my co-pilot, our latest interpretation of the North Sea weather and our route for that day we were spectacularly interrupted by the previously mentioned superior with much waving of hands and urgency. ‘The passengers for the flight you’re planning are the same ones you had three weeks ago – if they see your face they’re going to go mental!’
At the time I thought nothing of it and although I wasn’t sure how it mattered, decided just to accept the change of plan without question and switch to a new aircraft (this one being the one in the fleet with the newest engine) and a different stick of passengers.
Having boarded our new, blissfully unaware passengers and departed as usual for another day at the office we were just settling down in the cruise, some thirty miles offshore, when we were presented with the good news that the main gearbox had lost all oil pressure instantaneously, was producing metal and was getting rather warm.
The urgency of the situation was not lost on either of us and we both worked hard through the multitude of tasks required to make the correct decision and act upon it, descending and turning back towards the beach whilst keeping everyone informed.
The EC225 is fitted with an emergency lubrication (‘Emlub’) system designed to help cool a gearbox in the event of a loss of oil, using a mix of bleed air and glycol. With the Emlub system working we stood the chance of avoiding membership of the club as it provides the ability to choose where you land.
Unfortunately, the failure of the system was joined shortly after by a distinctive ‘unhappy gearbox’ smell. The look on my colleagues face reinforced what I was thinking and I still don’t know who won the ‘eyes on stalks’ competition.
Coming to a very low hover, with the floats inflated, a particularly attractive wave presented itself and after testing the weight of the helicopter on the floats to make sure they would work as advertised, we shut the aircraft down and my colleague gave the order to evacuate.
After several moments securing the aircraft and ‘packing’ with the sea lapping around our knees, I turned around in my seat to be presented with the passengers still stood by their cabin door pointing at an under-inflated raft back-dropped by nothing more than miles of white capped swell and grey overcast skies.
Pulling the life raft release handle just behind my head was a stroke of genius as not only did it provide a focus and alternative means of evacuation for the passengers, it meant they kindly brought the raft nearer my door enabling me to step directly into it – how civilised. Being piped aboard would have topped it but given that I was the reason that 12 burly oil rig workers were in that raft with me, I wasn’t about to push my luck.
Content in the knowledge that recovery was on its way and with the reassuring presence of a diverted Puma maintaining station over us, the pressure eased a little and we all settled into the task of waiting to be picked up. In an effort to break the ice I told my best pirate joke as it was the only nautically based gag I could think of at short notice - tough audience!
After about an hour, like London Buses, three rescuers arrived at once. My colleagues from Jigsaw SAR flight based on the Miller platform, a Sea King from RAF Boulmer and a Severn class life boat from the Aberdeen RNLI all arrived within moments of each other.
Having remained relatively dry up until this point we were then thoroughly drenched by the winching evolutions whilst the first eight of us were taken aboard BOND1 to be flown back to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary. The remainder were picked up by the RNLI, half of whom decided to be winched aboard the Sea King for a quicker ride home.
Within a couple of hours of the first warning indication we were all reunited and warming ourselves with a cup of tea and testament to the flotation system, the aircraft was also recovered and the root cause determined as a failure of the shaft that drove both the main and standby oil pumps.
When another EC225 ditching between Orkney and Shetland later in the year was determined as the same cause, the entire fleet was grounded worldwide until the extent of the problem was determined. Quite a way to stamp your name in the industry and not something I would relish the opportunity to repeat.
I remain grateful to my colleague on the day and to the efforts of the rescue services that ensured that we didn’t get too cold and only just a little wet.