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Thursday 19 October 2017

'We're gone' - Rescue 116 tape tells of last desperate seconds of heroic crew

Crew tried to avoid smashing into Black Rock island before rescue helicopter went down

The crew of Rescue 116; (left to right) Paul Ormsby, Mark Duffy, Dara Fitzpatrick and Ciaran Smith,
The crew of Rescue 116; (left to right) Paul Ormsby, Mark Duffy, Dara Fitzpatrick and Ciaran Smith,
A Coast Guard helicopter takes off at Blacksod Pier. Photo: Steve Humphreys

Robin Schiller & Independent.ie News Desk

The pilots of R116 made a desperate attempt to avoid colliding with Black Rock island after their on-board warning system failed to alert them to danger.

The preliminary investigation by the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) has found that pilot Captain Dara Fitzpatrick pitched the helicopter 'nose up' to avoid smashing into the island off the Co Mayo coast.

However, the helicopter crashed, claiming the lives of Capt Fitzpatrick, Captain Mark Duffy, winchman Paul Ormsby, and winch operator Ciarán Smith.

The R116 crew - who were despatched from their Dublin base to Co Mayo to help with a rescue operation - appeared to know what was happening in the final seconds before impact.

The report - which was issued last night - has released the transcript from the voice recorder.

The "rear crew channel" - a communication channel used by Mr Ormsby and Mr Smith - can be heard telling Capt Fitzpatrick there is an island just ahead of them.

Either Mr Ormsby or Mr Smith direct Capt Fitzpatrick to turn 20 degrees to the right, which she follows, with both herself and her co-pilot Mark Duffy changing heading.

However, it appears another obstacle appears and the rear crew member can be heard directing "come right now, come right, COME RIGHT".

Rescue 116 had a warning system for low altitude but that did not include information for the terrain around Black Rock island
Rescue 116 had a warning system for low altitude but that did not include information for the terrain around Black Rock island

At this stage, an automated warning came on saying 'Altitude', followed by 'Smoke in Baggage'.

Captain Duffy can then be heard saying: "We're gone."

A muffled sound follows and then nothing. This last interaction between the crew took place over the course of just 13 seconds.

The investigation found that the helicopter rapidly pitched nose up during the two seconds prior to the initial impact before it hit the rocks.

The report later stated: "It appears the helicopter was in a nose-high attitude when it impacted with Black Rock."

Senior AAIU investigator Graham Liddy told Newstalk Breakfast that there were general adverse weather conditions at the time of the crash, with strong high winds and poor visibility.

"The area in Black Sod may have even been a little worse than that," he said on Friday morning.

"The forecast doesn't tell you about the mist hanging over the whole island; the island was obscured".

The crew were flying using the 'Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System' (EGPWS) but the preliminary report says information about Black Rock was missing from the data.

Mr Liddy has called for an upgrade to the warning system used so that this type of tragedy does not occur again.

R116 was providing 'top cover' to R118, which was evacuating a crewman from a ship.

The report stated that communication between the crew and air traffic control in Dublin as well as the Shannon base during the flight was "focused" on the mission at hand.

It is also stated Capt Fitzpatrick commented to the other crew members that, according to the report, "it had been a substantial period of time since she had previously landed at Blacksod.

On one occasion, the commander asked the co-pilot when he had last been into Blacksod and he indicated that he had not been there recently".

The crash occurred at around 12.46am on March 14.

A mayday was issued at 1.13am by Malin broadcast.

R118 was on the scene by 2.13am - three minutes later R118 located debris and Capt Fitzpatrick. She died several hours later.

The body of Capt Duffy was removed from the main wreckage of the helicopter on the seabed on March 25.

The search continues for the remains of crewmen Mr Ormsby and Mr Smith.

Irish Independent

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