‘Quick-thinking’ co-pilot praised for keeping helicopter in fatal crash afloat

The actions of the co-pilot were “critical” in keeping a helicopter afloat after it ditched into the sea with the loss of four lives, an inquiry has heard.

Adrian Cope, a senior investigator with the Air Accident Investigation Branch (AAIB), said “quick-thinking” co-pilot Adrian Bell was aware the aircraft was going down and managed to trigger the flotation bags before the crash.

Two crew and 12 passengers on board the Super Puma L2 survived when it ditched on its approach to Sumburgh Airport, Shetland, at 6.17pm on August 23 2013.

But 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.

Mr Cope, who was involved in preparing the AAIB report into the crash, told the inquiry that recorded data “showed the helicopter was flying as you would expect it to right up till the last minutes.”

Shetland helicopter crash victims
From left, Duncan Munro, 46, from Bishop Auckland, George Allison, 57, from Winchester, Gary McCrossan, 59, from Inverness and and Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin (Police Scotland/PA)

As the captain suffered a very debilitating injury, co-pilot Alan Bell took the lead in helping those on board following impact.

The fatal accident inquiry (FAI) into the crash is being heard virtually due to coronavirus measures.

Mr Cope told the FAI: “Prior to impact the co-pilot realised what was going to happen and he arms the flotation bags which is automatically triggered but they need to be armed by a push button.

“His awareness of the situation and quick thinking was really very crucial because that kept the helicopter on the surface, and we know from previous accidents then should the helicopter sink that is a very dire situation for all on board.

“That was the first of his actions that was critical. He was also aware there were release handles on the life raft.

“Some of the information he was aware of in terms of the release handles on the life raft made the process a lot quicker and smoother than it would have been had he not been present.”

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.

An AAIB report published in 2016 found the pilots failed to properly monitor the flight instruments and failed to notice their airspeed was decreasing until it was too late to avoid the Super Puma plunging into the sea.

A statement of agreed evidence read at the start of the inquiry confirmed no mechanical fault was discovered with the helicopter, which was returning from the Borgsten Dolphin support vessel to Sumburgh Airport when it ditched.

The inquiry continues.

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