Chilling final moments of R116 as crew realised imminent danger
A crew member of doomed Coast Guard helicopter Rescue 116 spotted the looming bulk of Black Rock island in Co Mayo through an infra red camera just 13 seconds before its tail rotor impacted an outbuilding near the lighthouse on the island, sealing the fate of the one woman and three men on board.
The 39-page Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) preliminary report into the crash of R116 at 00.46 hrs on March 14 in Blacksod Bay by investigator-in-charge Paul Farrell is laid out in a standard format for such inquiries. Crisp, professional, highly technical, not apportioning blame, it records factual findings and tries to ascertain what happened to the 10-year-old US-made Sikorsky S-92A helicopter that night.
But it makes for chilling reading, particularly the appendix setting out the final conversations between the crew on the aircraft - and the realisation that the helicopter was within seconds of avoiding Black Rock and the tragedy which followed.
When it impacted the island, the nose was pitching up rapidly, possibly indicating the pilots were desperately trying to climb to avoid the obstacle.
The helicopter commander, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45) was recovered from the sea, but she died later. The body of co-pilot, Captain Mark Duffy (51), was recovered later from the underwater wreckage. The search goes on for the other missing crew, winch operator Paul Ormsby (53) and winchman Ciarán Smith (38).
Once the final AAIU report is released, the tragedy of Rescue 116 may ultimately lead to a new direction for search-and-rescue services in Ireland. Currently, CHC Ireland, a private company, provides the helicopter service to the Coast Guard under a 10-year, €500m contract which runs until 2022. Rescue 116 had flown from Dublin to act as "top cover" for another Coast Guard helicopter, R118 from Sligo, which was flying out into the Atlantic to medically evacuate an injured man from a fishing vessel.
R116 was planning to re-fuel at the heli-pad at Blacksod Bay before continuing on its mission. R118 had already done so and the report says the crew of R116 made "extensive efforts" to establish direct radio communications with R118 and two-way communication was "briefly established" on VHF radio while R118 was in the vicinity of Blacksod for refuelling.
A massive search operation led to the recovery of the multi-purpose flight recorder. Audio recordings show that during the flight across Ireland, Capt Fitzpatrick commented to the other crew members that it had been a substantial period of time since she had landed in Blacksod and co-pilot Mark Duffy told her he also hadn't been there recently.
Just 26 seconds before the initial impact, a radio altimeter aural warning, sounded, saying "Altitude, Altitude," and Capt Fitzpatrick identified it as a small island below the helicopter. Flight data showed the helicopter was in the vicinity of two outcrops of rock, Carrickduff and Carrickdad, .65 nautical miles to the west of Black Rock at the time. Just 13 seconds before the helicopter's tail hit the island, a crew member identified the island, probably through the electro-optical/infra-red camera, telling the pilots to go 20 degrees right, later, increasing in intensity: "Come right, come right, COME RIGHT."
The helicopter's nose was pitching up at the impact, it continued to climb briefly before falling into the sea. The last words in the cockpit from Capt Duffy were: "We're gone."
The investigation found that the database of the helicopter's sophisticated terrain avoidance system, the EGPWS, the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, did not have details on it of Black Rock island or its lighthouse. The crew of R116 were relying on a programmed navigational route to Blacksod which should have helped them in their approach and should have warned them of Black Rock island.
The AAIU report makes two safety recommendations: that CHC Ireland should review and re-evaluate all route guides. It also makes a recommendation relating to the location in the lifejackets of locator beacons and the GPS antennae that operates them. The beacons in the lifejackets of the crew of R116 were worn in the same pouches as the GPS. The manufacturers' manual says the two pieces of kit should be 30cm apart. It recommends that the lifejacket makers, RFD Beaufort Ltd, should review the installation provisions and instructions.
The Air Corps had been due to receive five Sikorsky S-92 helicopters but the Government later decided to outsource the search-and-rescue function to a private company, in common with other countries. Prior to that, the Air Corps had provided Ireland's search-and-rescue capability. In the UK, another private firm now performs search-and-rescue duties. But in Ireland, at least, that may be about to change.
It's understood there was a conversation in Government circles about a 50/50 tasking between the Coast Guard and Air Corps before the contract was awarded to CHC Ireland, but that the Air Corps would have needed at least three years at the time to work up to it. Since then, Air Corps shortages in experienced staff affected the service.
The Government says 28 young pilots are in training but one ex-Air Corps officer has pointed out it can take six to eight years to train.
Losing experienced personnel to commercial airlines is an issue, but pilots should get incentives to stay in the force, critics say.
The agreement with CHC Ireland runs out in 2022, but it can be extended for up to three years, which may give the Government some leeway if it wants to give the Air Corps a greater role.