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Damning report on fatal Tramore helicopter crash

THE draft report into the Tramore helicopter crash which claimed the lives of three Air Corps members last July has expressed serious concern about several aspects of the management of the rescue mission. The expert investigation team has highlighted: * the absence of an air traffic controller in the control tower at Waterford Airport at the time;

* The delegation of air control duties to Air Corps ground staff who were not qualified in this field;

* inadequate meteorological information for the ill-fated crew;

* faulty approach lighting to the airport runway;

* the fact that the Air Corps crew undertook the rescue mission even though they had never flown in similar conditions and had already completed 15 hours flying that day; and

* an unnecessary delay at the rescue scene caused by the use of an inadequate lifeboat although a fully equipped one was available.

The report has ruled out mechanical failure and fuel contamination as probable causes of the crash.

The confidential draft report was drawn up by an Air Corps team following a 10-month investigation and it runs to several hundred pages. The team worked closely with the Department of Public Enterprise's Air Accident Investigation Unit.

The crash happened at about 12.40am on the night of Thursday July 8, 1999, as the Dauphin was returning to Waterford from a sea-air rescue mission. The helicopter made two aborted attempts to land at Waterford Airport before crashing into the high sand dunes on nearby Tramore beach. All of the crew Captains Mick Baker and Dave O'Flaherty and winchmen Sgt Paddy Mooney and Cpl Niall Byrne were killed.

There was just one person on duty (the fire officer) in Waterford Airport when the call came in at 10pm from the Irish Marine Emergency Service (IMES) following a 999 call from a small pleasure craft. The Réalt Ór, with four men and a young boy on board, was lost in fog in Dungarvan Bay. IMES asked the Helvick lifeboat and the Air Corps helicopter to go to the scene.

The Dauphin crew, who were based in houses in Dunmore East, drove in very foggy conditions to the airport and flew directly to Dungarvan Bay, 30 miles away. The Helvick, a small lifeboat with only basic navigational aids and no radar, was having difficulties locating the Réalt Ór. The Dauphin located the two boats and guided the Helvick to the casualty. The time was 11.05pm. The Helvick began towing the boat ashore.

Its mission completed, the Dauphin prepared to depart. However, it was asked to remain at the scene to help the Helvick find its way through the fog. It waited more than an hour, departing just before the all-weather Ballycotton lifeboat reached the scene.

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At the time of the crash, those involved with the rescue mission asked why the Helvick, a small lifeboat with no radar, was sent out in heavy fog and the Ballycotton lifeboat, with its sophisticated navigational aids, only called out much later on.

Why was the Dauphin, a short-range helicopter with a flying time of two to three hours, delayed unnecessarily and for so long at the rescue scene?

The report calls on the Department of the Marine to initiate an investigation into the circumstances that gave rise to the mission and the prolonging of the Dauphin's presence at the scene.

By the time the Dauphin returned to Waterford Airport, conditions had worsened considerably. There was also a strong possibility that the approach lights to the runway were only half-lit because of a continuing electrical fault.

The report returns again and again to the absence of an air traffic controller (ATC) in the control tower the night of the crash. There are two ATCs in Waterford Airport, but neither was on duty that night, nor were they called in when the rescue mission was initiated. Instead, one of the members of the Air Corps ground team was manning the radio in the control tower.

All four members of the Air Corps ground team and the manager of the airport were in the control tower at the time. The Air Corps personnel did not have any training or experience in air traffic control and weather conditions.

The report found that an ATC could have supplied the crew with accurate information on weather conditions and possibly recommended a diversion from Waterford Airport.

Later that night, at about 3.30am, Shannon Airport called in one of the Waterford Airport ATCs to assist in the landing of a Sikorsky helicopter, and although conditions were still very poor, the Sikorsky landed safely. The fault in the approach lights had also been repaired by this time.

The report raises concerns about the pressures on the Dauphin crew that night. The new 24-hour service had only been launched that day and this was their first night-time callout. The team had already worked for 15 hours

The draft report has been released to the families of the deceased airmen, relevant government departments, military commanders, the Dauphin manufacturers and other interested parties. The final report is expected in about six months' time.

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