- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 2, 2009

EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND (AP) - Energy company BP PLC said Thursday it was suspending flights with a company that runs transport to offshore oil rigs after one of the firm’s Super Puma helicopters crashed in the North Sea, killing all 16 people aboard.

Eight bodies have been recovered after Wednesday’s crash. Coast guard boats and other vessels were searching the sea off Scotland’s northeast coast for more bodies and wreckage.

“The grim reality is that the crew of 16 on board has been lost,” said Colin Menzies, assistant chief constable of Grampian Police.

The helicopter was returning to Aberdeen from a North Sea oil platform when it crashed Wednesday afternoon in calm and sunny conditions, 14 nautical miles (26 kilometers) off Peterhead in northeast Scotland.

Officials said the aircraft suffered a “catastrophic impact” with the water and sank quickly.

BP said the helicopter, carrying 14 oil workers and two helicopter crew, was coming back from the company’s Miller oil field.

It was operated by a British firm, Bond Offshore Helicopters. BP said it had “discontinued” the use of Bond helicopters for its North Sea workers for an unspecified period.

BP’s Bernard Looney said the decision designed to give Bond staff time to get over their loss.

“Coupled with that is that we need to make sure the people in charge of safety-critical equipment have their minds fully on the job,” he said.

Bond said it was working with BP to resume services, and rejected calls by a trade union for all its Super Pumas to be grounded until the cause of the crash was determined.

“This is not an aircraft issue. We have every confidence in the Super Puma,” Bond spokesman Dick Mutch said

The Maritime and Coastguard Agency said two lifeboats and seven other vessels, including ferries and fishing boats, were searching for the missing and helicopter wreckage. Experts from the Air Accidents Investigation Branch were traveling to the scene of the crash.

Police on Thursday named all but one of the dead. Fifteen of those killed were British, with about half from the local Aberdeen area. The nationality of the 16th victim was not disclosed.

Helicopters have been used to ferry workers to and from the oil and gas fields off the Scottish coast since the construction of platforms there in the 1970s.

The Super Puma is used by dozens of countries’ militaries and hundreds of civilian operators around the world, and is a popular form of transport in the offshore oil industry.

In February 2008, five people died when a Super Puma carrying oil workers crashed in the sea off Brazil. In July, five people were killed when a Venezuelan military Super Puma crashed in Bolivia.

Wednesday’s crash was the second such incident in the North Sea this year, both involving the Super Puma. A different model of Super Puma ditched in the North Sea six weeks ago, but all 18 people on board were rescued.

In Canada, 17 people died March 12 when a Sikorsky S-92A helicopter ditched in the Atlantic after declaring a mechanical problem. The chopper was carrying workers to two offshore oil platforms.

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond said the two North Sea accidents this year appeared unrelated.

Salmond said the crash “reminds us that there is a huge wealth in the North Sea, but a huge cost in extracting it.”

The worst North Sea accident was in 1986 when 45 people died after a Chinook crashed into the sea off the Shetland Islands north of Scotland.

Safety was improved after the Chinook crash, and all offshore workers in the North Sea now have to complete tough training in a crash simulator. All wear survival immersion suits and are equipped with personal beacons and floatation devices.

The Super Puma is fitted with air bags, similar to those in cars, that deploy on contact with the water.

___

Associated Press Writer Jill Lawless contributed to this report from London.

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