The mysterious ban on a life-saving aircraft

Geoff Hill, Special to The China Post

They drop water on forest fires, rescue islanders after a flood and serve in the R.O.C. Air Force.

But a year ago Taiwan — along with the rest of the world — grounded all its Airbus Super Puma helicopters pending an enquiry. Since then, they have come back to service and more have been added to the fleet.

From its launch 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, the Sultan of Oman and Botswana president Ian Khama. India and Singapore both have squadrons.

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 inquiry 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 the national carriers from Lufthansa to Singapore, Emirates or China Airlines, and you’ll find Airbus. Between them, the U.S. Boeing group and Airbus based in France build more than 80 percent of the world’s passenger planes.

For helicopters, the market is more diverse with manufacturers in Japan, Brazil, Russia, several in the U.S., and Airbus out of Marseille in France. They’re also built at the Aerospace Industrial Development Corporation in Taichung.

Choppers ferry wealthy clients to a landing pad on the roof of Harrods in London, sweep the sea for lost fishing boats, and monitor illegal logging in Malaysia and Indonesia.

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 kilometers.

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 meters, 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.