The family of a north-east woman who died in the Sumburgh helicopter tragedy say they have received “no closure” from the results of the fatal accident inquiry.
Sarah Darnley, 45, from Elgin, was one of four people who died after the aircraft ditched off the coast of Shetland in September 2013.
Her parents Anne and Edmund campaigned tirelessly for six years following the accident to ensure the causes of the crash were examined in a courtroom.
Yesterday the couple paid tribute to the strength of the surviving passengers for recounting the “harrowing” events – but said they were still left without closure about the tragedy.
Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle made no recommendations in his determination while ruling the ditching had been caused by pilot error and a “perfect storm” of circumstances.
Meanwhile, union bosses have maintained the tragedy was “avoidable” while calling for a public inquiry to examine the impact of commercial pressures on the helicopter industry due to concerns safety systems were not properly used.
In a statement issued on their behalf, Sarah Darnley’s family said: “We wish to express our gratitude to the surviving passengers who gave evidence before the inquiry.
“Recounting the events of that day was very clearly a harrowing task and our thoughts are with them as they try to rebuild their lives.
“Seven years have passed since the tragedy, but we cannot say that today brings closure for us.
“Sarah was a beloved daughter, sister and niece and we think about her every day.
“We cherish the memories we have and are forever grateful she was part of our lives.”
The tragic flight also claimed the lives of Gary McCrossan, from Inverness, Duncan Munro, from Bishop Auckland, and George Allison, from Winchester.
Sheriff Principal Pyle concluded the deaths had been caused by the helicopter crew failing to properly monitor the cockpit instruments.
The inquiry heard the pilots activated a 3-axes autopilot system during the approach instead of the more modern 4-axes, which ensures airspeed is monitored automatically and not just manually.
Evidence given in the hearing by Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) investigator Alison Campbell explained the more sophisticated system would have “reduced the workload” of the crew
However, the inquiry also heard the 3-axes system was specified by the helicopter operator, CHC, at the time and Ms Campbell added the pilot was “perfectly entitled” to fly in that mode.
Yesterday union RMT maintained the tragedy could have been averted.
General secretary Mick Cash said: “RMT is disappointed the FAI predictably kept the scope of the inquiry very narrow, looking at the events at the precise moment of the tragedy.
“There was no consideration of the wider aspects of what led to the tragedy and the loss of four lives, including RMT member Sarah Darnley.
“The fact remains the tragedy would have been avoided if the safety systems in the helicopter had been enabled.
“Those systems were inhibited because the pilots hadn’t been trained on how to use them.
“The fact the safety systems were fitted in the aircraft tells us the risks of such an event occurring were apparent to the helicopter manufacturer.
“The fact the pilots weren’t trained to use the safety systems tells us that commercial pressures were a factor in a tragedy which was completely avoidable.”
Oil and gas agency Step Change in Safety has praised changes made by the aviation industry in the years since the Sumburgh crash.
Executive director Steve Rae said: “The learnings from the comprehensive safety review initiated by this event were far-reaching and changed the way we manage and monitor helicopter flight parameters.
“My thoughts are with the survivors and those who lost loved ones and family members because of this tragic accident.”
The FAI also attributed the death of passenger Sam Bull, who took his own life in December 2017, to the incidents.
Mr Bull was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder after ensuring the safety of other survivors and performing CPR on Mr McCrossan after the ditching.
Following his death, his family began campaigning about mental health problems to raise awareness of the impact trauma can have.
Speaking to the BBC, his father, Michael Bull, said: “There was clearly an injury, a big change in him, a mental injury, which ultimately led to his death.
“The inquest did confirm that it was the helicopter crash which caused the PTSD, which led to his suicidal thoughts and eventually to his death.
“For many people, it’s very difficult to understand that something like that can have that amount of impact – it really does change people.”
The “bravery” of both pilots in the moments after the crash was highlighted in the court ruling.
Sheriff Principal Derek Pyle said expert witnesses had praised co-pilot Alan Bell for his quick thinking in releasing the emergency flotation system which “probably saved lives”, as well as his actions to release the life rafts.
Regarding the commander, Sheriff Principal Pyle said: “Despite suffering from a serious back injury, Capt Martin Miglans insisted that he be the last survivor winched from the sea.”
The inquiry was told Capt Miglans was a very experienced North Sea helicopter pilot of 16 years with over 10,000 hours of flying time. His co-pilot Mr Bell had a total flying experience of over 3,000 flying hours but had completed his training on the L2 helicopter only six months before.
The pilots had flown together as a crew on several occasions.
The determination said: “As is required for all flights, Capt Miglans planned in advance his approach to Sumburgh. “Because of the [misty] weather conditions, it was necessary to engage the autopilot. In broad terms, there were two choices: in 3-axes or 4-axes.
“The most important difference between the two is that in 4-axes the autopilot controls the airspeed, while in 3-axes that control can remain with the pilot.”
The sheriff principal has ruled the cause of the crash was the ineffective monitoring instruments, particularly regarding airspeed.
Although the Super Puma L2 was an upgraded model with 4-axes, he said: “As was his custom, Capt Miglans selected to proceed in 3-axes in a mode which allowed him to control the airspeed and he adopted a constant descent approach technique with reducing airspeed.
“The approach was proceeding satisfactorily until the helicopter reached 1000ft above the mean sea level when its flight path deviated from the planned vertical profile. “The speed reached the planned speed of 80kts at 625ft but continued to fall until it fell below the minimum operating limit of 70kts and then down to less than 30kts, which meant that the helicopter had entered a low energy state, which in turn compromised the auto pilot’s control of the flight path.
“By the time the helicopter had reached the minimum descent altitude of 300ft, it was too late for the commander to take remedial action.
“He attempted to increase the speed by applying the maximum collective pitch, but the helicopter had entered a vortex ring state which meant that it was bound to continue the descent until it crashed into the sea. The time was 5.17 pm.”
Sheriff Principal Pyle praised Mr Bell for having the “presence of mind” to engage the emergency floatation system before the crash.
“If he had not done so it is likely that more lives would have been lost,” he said.
“Both pilots were injured: Mr Bell a head injury due to having been leaning forward at impact (presumably because he was arming the flotation system) and the commander a serious back injury.”
“All but two passengers managed with difficulty to escape through cabin windows. One passenger managed to escape but died prior to or immediately after reaching the surface.”
All the survivors were winched from the water – five directly from the sea, nine from the life raft.
Despite his severe injury, the commander insisted that he be the last survivor to be winched into a helicopter.
The inquiry had the benefit of first-hand evidence of some of the survivors. Matthew Bower was employed by Total as a chemist.
Immediately before the helicopter crashed he was able to adopt the brace position, which he described as instinct, not training.
He managed to take a deep breath before submersion, and got the seal off the window and push it out – enabling him to swim to the surface.
He eventually ended up in the first life raft. He and colleague Samuel Bull, who later committed suicide, and another passenger administered CPR on Gary McCrossan throughout the time spent in the life raft.
Mr Bower told the court that Capt Miglans insisted that he be the last person to be winched free.
As for Mr Bell, Mr Bower said that “if I met the man who got the life rafts out, I’d shake his hand”. He has since worked offshore again.
Offshore scaffolder Paul Sharp was also able to take a breath before submersion and escaped through a window.
He was followed by another passenger, Neil Ritchie. Mr Sharp ended up in the group in the water until rescued.
At first, only one side of his life jacket inflated but he was able manually to fill the other half.
He complained that the beacon locator and light on the life jacket were not working.
He suffered minor injuries to his head and hand but suffered a haematoma two days later. He has since suffered from PTSD and anxiety and still suffers from nightmares.
Eighteen months after the accident he had a test flight in a helicopter, but after it decided that he would never get into one again.
Meanwhile, Mark Martin, who was an offshore construction supervisor and had spent all his working life offshore, is also still struggling to come to terms with what happened. He may have exited from the cockpit, but ended up in the group in the water.
He complained that his survival suit was full of water, meaning the waves were going right over the top of him and he had great difficulty breathing.
He said that the two pilots threw a rope towards him but he was unable to catch it and drifted away. He was very cold, started to cramp up and was going into hypothermic shock.
Gulls were attacking him, trying to peck at his eyes and ears. When being winched up, the winchman cut the suit to allow the water to escape.
Mr Martin is still seeing a mental health therapist, has flashbacks and problems sleeping and, as for the future, he thinks that he is not employable, telling the court: “I can’t see that far forward”.
Neil Ritchie was employed as an offshore wireline operator. He had been working offshore for eight years.
After the submersion, he managed to reach an air pocket and take a couple of breaths. He followed another passenger, possibly Mr Sharp, out of a window. He was in the water until rescued.
As to the effects of the accident, he thought that none “of us is the same since”. One of his first decisions was not to go offshore again, not least because he had an 18-month-old son.
Toby Croft is an electrician. On submersion, he had no time to take a breath but followed another passenger out of a window having elbowed it out himself. Again, he ended up in the water until his rescue.
He suffered broken ribs and still has back problems which can result in him being bedridden for a few days at a time.
Mentally, he felt that he was “doing alright”, but has not worked offshore since and said: “I won’t get into a chopper again”.