Crash survivor said helicopter sounded as if it was ‘tearing itself to bits’

A survivor of a helicopter crash in which four people were killed told a Fatal Accident Inquiry the aircraft sounded like it was “tearing itself to bits” before it hit the sea.

Neil Ritchie, 39, also said rigorous survival training he had received for working in Norway was “quite possibly” significant in helping during the ditching.

The wireline operator was one of 18 people on board the Super Puma L2 when it ditched on its approach to Sumburgh Airport, Shetland, at 18.17pm on August 23 2013.

Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, Moray, Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness, Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, County Durham, and George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Hampshire, died in the crash.

Shetland helicopter crash
Shetland helicopter crash

The two crew members and 12 remaining passengers survived the crash, which happened as the helicopter returned from the Borgsten Dolphin support vessel.

Survivor Samuel Bull later took his own life in London in 2017, which Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle, who is hearing the inquiry, said was “directly caused” by the crash.

Giving evidence on the third day of the inquiry, being held virtually due to coronavirus measures, Mr Ritchie said he heard a loud noise and vibrations and saw from the pilot’s face that the helicopter was going down, giving him time to brace despite there being no brace warning.

“There was this vibration and it sounded like something tearing itself to bits,” he said.

“It just went over into the water and submerged instantly. You felt the impact and immediately the thing was under water.”

Mr Ritchie said he panicked before focusing on his training of counting to three, to ensure the rotor blades had stopped spinning, and trying to escape.

He said he accidentally set his life vest off while trying to access his emergency rebreather and eventually gave up on the rebreather, found an air pocket and followed someone out of a window.

He told the inquiry: “I saw the feet of somebody getting out a window and I thought that will do me, I’m going to try and see my family again.”

He said his training helped him during the accident as it gave him a set of steps to focus on and said the training for Norway was more realistic since it involved more simulated ditchings using wave machines in the dark.