Divers to try lift Rescue 116 helicopter wreckage from seabed today

Airbags attached to engine and gear-box in order to tilt wreckage in search of airmen

The body of Captain Mark Duffy is brought ashore at Blacksod Co Mayo on Sunday. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

Two weeks after the Irish Coast Guard Rescue 116 helicopter crashed off the North Mayo coast, an attempt will be made on Tuesday to partially lift its wreckage from the seabed.

Coastline searches for Irish Coast Guard winch operator Paul Ormbsy (53) and Ciaran Smith (38) have also been extended to north Donegal bay, as a small piece of the wreckage was found near Portnoo at the weekend.

The bodies of their two colleagues, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45) and Capt Mark Duffy (51) have been recovered from the sea, as has the Sikorsky S-92's "black box" or combined flight recorders which are being examined for data download in Britain.

Spring tides are making diving conditions very challenging at the crash location, in a 40m-deep channel off the south-east tip of Blackrock island, 13km west of the Mullet peninsula.


When Blackrock lighthouse was manned, it was renowned as one of the most difficult to approach by sea, due to the constant swell, currents and speed of tide running north-south from Achillbeg to Erris Head.

Naval Service divers attached a number of airbags to the engine and gear-box section of the Sikorsky S-92 on Monday, during a series of dives.

The divers are back on scene this morning, using local 12m-vessel Gearoidín as a platform, with the Irish Lights vessel Granuaile on standby off the rock as support, and Naval Service patrol ship LE Samuel Beckett providing on-scene co-ordination.

The plan is to inflate the airbags at about 2pm on Tuesday to tilt the wreckage to see if there is any trace of the two airmen. The operation is “slow and methodical,” the search team stressed.

Black box

The Marine Institute’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) Holland 1 worked through the night to remove a section of the helicopter’s roof, to lighten the load for lifting.

Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet Garda station said divers were continuing to assist in a wider search around Blackrock island.

Irish Coast Guard operations manager Gerard O’Flynn said that the subsea work was being augmented by continued air, sea and shore searches.

The helicopter's "black box" was sent to England at the weekend where voice and data recordings are being downloaded by the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch.

AAIU chief inspector Jurgen Whyte said there was some "slight corrosion damage" to some of the recorder's contact points due to the length of time it spent in salt water, but he was "confident" that data could be extracted by the end of this week.

The “black box” was retrieved by Naval Service divers last Friday, March 24th.

“We won’t do any download until we’re fully confident that it’s in the right condition to do so,” Mr Whyte told reporters at Blacksod pier on Monday.

Sea surge

Naval Service diving section officer-in-charge Lieut Dan Humphries explained that as the tide rises, the tide cycle becomes shorter – with eight minutes dives being cut back to six minutes in the increased depth.

He reported a four-knot tidal stream in the area at the weekend, along with the swell and sea surge, and said that advice by local fishermen on the conditions had been “completely correct”.

The combination of tides, currents and swell on the seabed meant that divers were “struggling to hold onto the wreck,” Lieut Humphries explained, acknowledging it was the most difficult task he had personally been involved in.

For this reason, divers are given specific tasks, after the ROV equipped with high definition cameras, lighting and cutting equipment does the preparatory searching.

The dive team's cycle is planned to limit recompression, which is on hand for those divers who may need it on board the Irish Lights ship Granuaile.

The Marine Institute has said that its experienced surveyors from the national seabed mapping programme, Infomar – a joint Marine Institute, Geological Survey initiative – are continuing to assist.

The Infomar team had identified target points for investigation and created three and two dimensional images of the seabed to help direct the ROV and assist in diving planning and safety.

Minister for Transport Shane Ross had promised "every single resource in the State" would be made available to the search effort and the families of the four air crew when he visited Blacksod the day after the crash.

“The over arching mood is just sheer sympathy for the four families,”Mr O’Flynn said.

“You have to be inspired by the work going on,” he said, noting that the Irish Coast Guard Sligo-based helicopter had been out to assist a fisherman at the weekend.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins is the former western and marine correspondent of The Irish Times