Tens of thousands of offshore workers in Scotland will be urged to strike if a helicopter involved in a spate of accidents returns to service.
Pat Rafferty, the Scottish head of Unite, the union, has threatened to ballot members if the Super Puma, an aircraft once routinely used to ferry workers to North Sea rigs, is reintroduced.
The helicopter was grounded across Europe last year in the wake of a crash in Norway but restrictions were lifted in July by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).
Amid concern that UK helicopter operators could bring back the aircraft, MSPs will debate the issue this week in the Scottish parliament. Rafferty is urging politicians to back Unite’s call for the Super Puma to be grounded indefinitely and said moves to return the aircraft to offshore duties would be strongly opposed.
“People view this aircraft as a flying coffin,” said Rafferty. “We’re absolutely prepared to take industrial action if there are any moves to reintroduce the aircraft and we’re confident that the majority of our members, not to mention the public, would be hugely supportive.”
A recent survey by Airbus, which produces the Super Puma, suggested more than 60% of offshore workers would not feel comfortable travelling in the helicopter. Since 2009, it has been involved in several crashes and more than 30 offshore workers have been killed.
In April 2016, 13 people died after a Super Puma EC225 crashed west of the Norwegian city of Bergen. Among those killed was Iain Stuart, an oil worker from Laurencekirk in Aberdeenshire.
Witnesses described seeing “huge flames” and “black smoke” after the helicopter plunged an estimated 2,100ft in 10 seconds. It had been en route from Statoil’s Gullfaks B platform when it crashed closed to Flesland airport.
In 2012, EC225 Super Puma helicopters crashed in two incidents in Scotland, one off Aberdeen and the other off Shetland. Both crashes, which did not result in fatalities, were blamed on gearbox problems. In 2009, All 14 passengers and two crew died when a Super Puma came down in the North Sea, close to Peterhead on the east coast of Scotland. In 2015, the Super Puma EC225 was rebranded under Airbus as model H225.
“Thirty-three families in Scotland have lost loved ones who stepped on board a Super Puma helicopter,” said Rafferty. “Our members have made it absolutely clear that they have lost confidence in the aircraft. That confidence is not going to return, ever.”
The CAA said lifting of restrictions on the Super Puma followed modifications by Airbus. Operators are also required to carry out rigorous checks and to replace parts more frequently. “We would never have lifted the restrictions unless we were convinced that the changes meant that the required standards were now being met.”
Airbus Helicopters said: “We welcome any open and informed discussion on the safety of offshore helicopters and this is clearly a topic of great importance to MSPs.
“While global and national independent authorities have lifted all H225 flight restrictions based on new safety measures, which go beyond regulators’ requirements, Airbus Helicopters understands the importance of restoring confidence in the aircraft ahead of any return to service. We are now in the process of informing the workforce and wider community of the updates.”
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