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NEWS AND VIEWS APRIL 2009   

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ANOTHER HELICOPTER CRASH

When I wrote last month about the helicopter crashes which had recently occurred, one in Canada and one in UK, I never expected to be writing about another in this month's newsletter.

This latest crash on 2nd April took place as the aircraft with 14 passengers on board was returning to Aberdeen from the Miller Platform. It crashed into the sea about 35 miles form Peterhead. There were no survivors. The aircraft was a Super Puma operated by Bond who provide helicopter services to BP. The news was received with shock by those closest to the incident, the workers on the platform, and obviously with considerable distress by the friends and relatives of those who were lost. They of course have our sympathy.

The event resulted in considerable media interest in the offshore survival course where, for those who do not know much about this, requires the participants to carry out simulated evacuations from a helicopter under different circumstances. Because helicopters are top heavy, and therefore have a tendency to invert immediately after impact on the sea there is a requirement for those on the course to strap into a helicopter body and sit there while it turns upside down and fills up with water. They can then release their seat belt and exit through a window before swimming up to the surface. Those who have experienced the naval underwater escape training unit at HMS Heron, "the dunker",  have the added distress of having to sit there while the helicopter upturns and then descends to a depth of five metres in total darkness, before being able to release their seat belts and swim to the surface.

However, none of this training would have been of any help to the passengers on the Miller flight. According to the latest reports, the AAIB have suggested that the aircraft suffered from a catastrophic gearbox failure, which apparently might have resulted in the rotor detaching. The helicopter would have just fallen out of the sky, actually within the view of the watchkeepers on the Normand Aurora, which launched its FRC within minutes of the crash.

Those of us who regularly travel offshore will find themselves attempting to rationalise these recent events. We all know there is a risk to helicopter travel. The very fact that we have to put on ever more complex protective gear emphasises it. In the North Sea this includes not only a survival suit with additional layers of clothing, but a breathing device and often some sort of locator beacon. The reality is of course, that helicopter travel is less risky than travelling by car, but it will take many months of safe operations before we are convinced.

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS DIE IN THE MEDITERRANEAN

A whole different scale of marine disaster occurred in the Mediterranean at the end of March. Apparently people from all over North Africa who want to get to Europe congregate in Libya, and pay money to embark on small craft which will then strike out for the Italian island of Lampedusa. There are alarming pictures on the internet of one of these craft, which apparently was rescued by an anchor-handler, looking very like Asso Ventidue. The scale of the disaster is difficult to encompass. Between 250 and 300 immigrants died not far from the coast of North Africa, and the few survivors were taken back to Tripoli

What are they thinking. Anyone who has sailed in the Med, and here I mean sailed in a yacht, as opposed to in a ship, will know that you can be weathered off for days in the Southern Mediterranean, even in mid summer. I have been stuck in the Cyclades so long that we ran out of water, but that could be another story.

This particular tale of distress did not even make it into the Uk press but it turns out that this route is used constantly by illegal immigrants, and in some years up to 10,000 people might make it across. Apparently in many cases the Italians move them on to the mainland and eventually just let them wander away. After all where are they going to send them back to? As I write this the guys who died in the helicopter crash are being commemorated at a memorial service in Aberdeen, attended by the Prime Minister and Prince Charles. We do not even know how many died in the Libyan accident.

ACTIVITY OFF THE HORN OF AFRICA

I was unaware that Maersk had any ships registered in the USA until the Maersk Alabama incident, resulting in the death of three pirates when Captain Phillips was rescued by the US Navy. This seems to have been the first US registered ship to have been captured otherwise surely there would have been more media coverage before. Of course this does not mean that none of the ships captured were American owned. Anyway, President Obama has now given his support to the efforts of the American Navy, and presumably the Navies of the other nations having a presence there, in their efforts to protect the ships in the area. Meanwhile the French, who seem to be taking the most positive approach have captured 11 pirates and a little earlier in the month recaptured a yacht with the loss of life on one of the hostages.

Apparently there are about 500 pirates operating out of their base of Eyl, and the only qualification required is ownership of a gun. For every pirate captured or killed there are ten young men ready to take his place. And why not? The possibility of capture remains remote and the rewards are considerable. Historically the way the maritime nations of the world have dealt with piracy has been to capture the pirate base. This is the way the Romans, the Spanish and the British did it. However, this option may not be open to today's maritime nations because at present over 200 seafarers of many nations are being held hostage on their vessels.

SUBMARINE COLLISIONS

Recently an American submarine and an American warship collided in the Gulf of Hornung, and back in February a British and a French submarine collided somewhere in the Atlantic. Additionally when carrying out offshore risk assessments we always discuss the possibility of collision between  oil rigs and ships. Surprisingly - well for me it is surprising - one of the few collisions which have occurred between rigs and ships was between a submarine and an oil rig in the Norwegian Sea. And, if one researches collisions we find that submarines seem to be colliding all the time.

This may be something to do with the guesswork involved in dead reckoning navigation. My father was a submariner in the Second World was and I had occasion to ask him how they had managed to navigate in blackout conditions. After all, the missions undertaken by these vessels  often required them to approach close to land in total darkness with a complete lack of navigation marks or lights and often without the opportunity of getting good fixes because of the presence of the enemy. Oh he said, we just guessed it.

SUPPLY SHIP OPERATIONS

I am pleased to say that my book "Supply Ship Operations" has finally been published, and I am selling it at the same price that Butterworth Heinemann sold it for in 1992, which is 27.50. This is at least in part because of the number of emails I received from mariners complaining about the cost when it was published by OPL for 95. I used to tell them that it was because not enough of them purchased the original edition, but possibly the reality was that the internet was not as it is now, and the publishers were very poor at selling it.

I have managed to keep the price down by taking the advice of my printers in terms of size, and apparently the cheapest size for a soft back book is 17cm x 24 cm. I  have managed to keep the number of pages precisely in groups of 32 so it comes out at 288 pages, and all this has been possible because I have designed the book myself using an Apple Mac and Adobe Photoshop Essentials. There are over 100 colour photos, nearly all of them adding something to the text, which like the previous editions is intended to help people do the job. There are more details on our "Publications" page.

 Victor Gibson. April 2009.

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