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The mysterious ban on a life-saving aircraft

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Politicians love helicopters, quick-moving aircraft that don’t need a runway and can get you between meetings while others are stuck in traffic.

They are also the key to search and rescue at sea and in mountainous terrain.

But in Britain and Norway, a ban on a model well known in Afghanistan as has aviation experts shaking their heads.

Geoff Hill looks at a modern air mystery.

For almost a decade until 2015, they were the only search-and-rescue craft in the skies over Afghanistan: Super Puma helicopters, mostly on secondment from Spain.

Since it was launched 40 years ago, thousands of lives have been saved by this most iconic of the helicopters, a giant workhorse that flies from Africa to the Arctic.

It has also been the ride of choice for a number of kings and presidents, including Angela Merkel of Germany.

 

But in 2016, an accident saw Super Puma model number 225 grounded in Britain and Norway.

 

From a single-seater to the largest airliner, mishaps in the sky are not taken lightly.

 

An enquiry is standard, often coupled with a temporary grounding of the aircraft. Parts are checked, airlines or the manufacturer may be asked to make modifications, and the plane goes back in use.

 

And, sure enough, the 225 is flying again worldwide, except for an ongoing ban by the authorities in London and Oslo.

 

Some suggest the continued grounding is really down to oil companies trying to ditch their contracts in the North Sea. When the price of oil was high, Pumas ferried crews to the rigs, but as crude fell — so the story runs —  firms who had used them for years claimed the choppers were unsafe.

 

Look at any of national airlines, from Lufthansa to Singapore, Emirates or Afghanistan’s own Safi and Ariana, and you’ll find Airbus. Between them, the US Boeing group and Airbus based in France build more than 80 per cent of the world’s passenger planes.

 

For helicopters, the market is more diverse with manufacturers in Japan, Brazil, Russia, several in the US, and Airbus out of Marseille.

 

They ferry wealthy clients to a landing pad on the roof of Harrods in London, hover over African game reserves in search of poachers, or spray herbicide on illegal poppy crops used to make opium, a trade that’s growing in Afghanistan.

 

But when it launched in 1999, the Super Puma 225 was in a class of its own: strong, fast and with a range of nearly a thousand kilometres.

 

Today they’re used by the military in Taiwan, Mexico, France and Botswana. They serve in the Japanese coast guard, as airborne fire engines in South Korea and for Australian search and rescue.

 

On the morning of 29 April 2016, a Super Puma 225 operated by the Canadian CHC group left a platform in the North Sea and made for the Norwegian town of Bergen, less than an hour away. On board were 11 oil workers and two crew.

 

The flight recorder would later show nothing strange about the journey. Then, as it made land at an altitude of less than 700 metres, locals say they watched the massive rotors come off and fall away.

 

It took just 11 seconds for the cabin to hit the ground, killing all 13 people.

 

A BBC report claimed the same aircraft was forced to land a few days early when warning lights flashed in the cabin, but contrary to the Airbus manual, the owners didn’t send it for service.

 

It would later be alleged that, before the helicopter was assembled, a truck carrying the gearbox was involved in a road accident, possibly damaging the part.  Investigators found a crack or fracture, and the gearbox had split in flight,  forcing the blades to come away.

 

The mystery deepened when accident investigators in Norway couldn’t find what caused the break.

 

In line with procedure, oil companies in the UK and Norway grounded all their 225s, except those used in search and rescue.

 

But in London, the Civil Aviation Authority went further, banning the 225 from British air space. Norway followed, and within three months, 80 per cent of the world fleet was under inspection.

 

Quintin Frost is a South African pilot who has worked on all six continents, flying helicopters in Iraq, the Swiss Alps and frequently in both Kabul and Kandahar.

 

“Lift a heavy load with any helicopter and it tips to one side, so the pilot has to compensate by adjusting the rotors,” he said. “By contrast, the Super Puma goes straight up.

 

“But there are other things that make this a great aircraft. It probably has the best autopilot on the market, one of the few able land by itself. And if for some reason the engine fails, you can tilt the rotors and they are wide enough to catch the wind, and the spin will allow you to float down safely.”

 

The industry, he says, has never been more competitive, and every maker from Bell to Sikorsky and Airbus has had their problems.

 

Statoil is one of the world’s most profitable companies with operations in 36 countries and across the Middle East.

 

Headquartered in Oslo and with assets of more than $100bn, its single biggest shareholder (67%) is the Norwegian government.

 

Statoil had chartered the doomed flight on 29 April, and grounded their own fleet of 225s. But then they announced that all their Super Pumas would cease operation, opting instead for the US-made Sikorsky.

 

Slowly, the 225 moved back into use around the world, with just Britain and Norway insisting it stay out of service.

 

This has raised questions within the industry, including suggestions the ban may be linked to the low oil price given so many of the 225s in Europe ferried crews to and from platforms in the North Sea. Frustratingly there’s no evidence to show why the policy continues.

 

Once in the sky, other helicopters can fly without human control, but the 225’s autopilot will do a vertical take-off and landing, unaided. Sensors handle approach to even the smallest platform at sea, and an extra fuel tank can be fitted in under two hours, allowing greater reach.

 

In an emergency landing, it has more exit doors and windows that any similar craft and can fly in snow or along the equator.

 

More than 30 years ago the South African Air Force tasked Atlas Aviation- now Denel – to build a local helicopter. The template was a Super Puma.

 

And so was born the Atlas Oryx, arguably the most successful aircraft built in Africa. The Oryx still flies within both the Air Force and at the Helicopter Training School and is used in tourism and as a supply craft for bases in the Antarctic.

 

And like the Puma, it has an enviable record for safety.

 

So where does that leave the 225, still banned in just two countries?

 

Quintin Frost says there’s been an unforeseen boost in second-hand sales.

 

“The grounding saw these helicopters being sold across Europe at way below value. This has spread them around the world. Pilots love them, they’re low on fuel and we see them now in Asia and the Americas. I suspect it won’t be long before they appear in the sky again over Afghanistan.”

 

Theories on why this one crash and the tragic loss of 13 people led to such a massive reaction continue to be debated: competing firms in the shadows, a falling oil price, the chance to wiggle out of contracts.

 

Those imposing the ban cite health and safety while supporters – including many pilots and technicians – say one of the best aircraft ever built has been maligned.

 

At the Airbus plant in Marseilles, the 225 remains in production. Second-hand sales are strong, and from Greece to Chile and across Africa, the Super Puma brand has more than five million hours of flying time on the book, and adding to it every day.

 

In four decades, choppers have flown more than 65 million passengers have to and from the North Sea oil rigs.

 

These are some of the world’s most treacherous seas, and the oil fields support some 300 000 British jobs.

 

Super Pumas still land in Kabul, mostly visitors from neighbouring countries, and Afghanistan has no restriction on their use.

 

A year after the accident, it’s time for Britain and Norway to lift ban on the 225 or explain the mystery of why they are still trying to keep it out of the sky.