Airbus Helicopters may have a fight on its hands to convince regulators, offshore operators and the oil and gas workforce that its Super Pumas are safe to fly in the North Sea again, but the airframer’s chief executive insists that the rotorcraft have a future in the region.
The European Aviation Safety Agency on 7 October lifted a flight ban it had imposed in June on the AS332 L2 and H225 helicopters following an earlier fatal accident involving the latter type.
Despite the move – and the related safety measures – grounding orders are still in place in the key countries of the UK and Norway. EASA also admitted that the “root cause of this failure is still not fully understood” by the manufacturer.
However, Guillaume Faury, Airbus Helicopters chief executive, maintains that all stakeholders can eventually be convinced that the Super Puma family is safe.
“Some people say we have not understood [the root cause]. We know a lot. We are down to a small number of scenarios, which are very precise scenarios, for which we can put appropriate protections in place,” he says.
He is adamant that “it is not the case” that the Super Puma is no longer wanted by North Sea operators, but admits there has been “a significant loss of trust”.
“It is something we fully recognise and are fully aware of and we have to go through the steps to restore that trust. That has to be based on very robust, convincing, solid arguments.”
Faury also acknowledges that the “workforce especially” has “legitimate questions, doubts and fears” surrounding the safety of its helicopters.
Many in the North Sea region are particularly alarmed by the apparent similarities between the 29 April accident in Norway in which 13 died and a 2009 fatal crash of an AS332 L2 in UK airspace which killed 16 passengers and crew.
Both involved Super Puma helicopters and in both cases a fatigue fracture of a second stage planet gear in the epicyclic module resulted in a catastrophic failure of the main gearbox.
Faury says that it will now begin a wide-ranging engagement process with all stakeholders as it looks for a full return to service.
Technical reviews of the research underpinning EASA’s decision are already under way with the UK and Norwegian civil aviation regulators, he says, “so those authorities can feel fully at ease and back the decision taken by EASA”.
In addition, it has “restarted in-depth technical discussions with operators,” he says.
However, Faury acknowledges that the process cannot be rushed and that it must proceed “step by step”. It is a “process that’s going to take time”, he says, of which EASA’s move is only the start.
“It’s a step – a very important step – but a step among others.”
Key to the process will be industry safety body HeliOffshore, which has already begun assembling information on the issue for all key stakeholders.
The organisation’s chief executive Gretchen Haskins says Airbus Helicopters has to clear a number of “hurdles” before all parties are convinced Super Pumas are safe.
“If you don’t have a case you believe in then you can’t convince the workforce. The reason I have been confident that this will only be returned to service when it’s safe to do so is that I know how many steps there are in the process.”
However, Haskins admits that she would not yet fly in a H225 or AS332 L2: “For me it would have to go through all the steps and it has only been through the first ones.”
To convince the workforce, she says, “you need to have absolute evidence” that the safety of the helicopter can be guaranteed.