Rescue 116 families should be ‘fully involved’ in review, says lawyer

Two-day search of north Mayo’s Blackrock island taking place for two missing airmen

As the Defence Forces and gardaí comb north Mayo's Blackrock island for two missing Irish Coast Guard airmen, an international aviation lawyer has said that the families of all four Rescue 116 crew should be "fully included" in the investigation.

Senior pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45) and copilot Capt Mark Duffy (51) were the first two confirmed casualties of the crash off Blackrock island, 13km west of the north Mayo coast, in the early hours of March 14th.

A two-day dedicated Defence Force/Garda search for winch colleagues Paul Ormsby (53) and Ciaran Smith (38) is focusing on the precipitous terrain above and below sea level on Blackrock island.

London-based lawyer James Healy-Pratt said that it is "vital" that the Air Accident Investigation Unit involves the relatives. of the four helicopter crew.


“Historically, Government aviation safety investigators work only with the vested aviation industry interests, to the exclusion of the families,” he said. “The full truth needs to be uncovered and proper steps taken to prevent future innocent lives being lost.”

The Air Accident Investigation Unit, which is working on its final report, has said investigations are held in private and are confidential, and no comment is made specific to any investigation, other than through a published report.

However, it did brief families of the four air crew during the search, and also before release of its preliminary report last week.

Serious questions

Mr Healy-Pratt, a partner and head of aviation at Stewarts Law LLP and a helicopter pilot, said that the preliminary report raised some "serious questions".

The preliminary report recommended that CHC Ireland, which has the Irish Coast Guard contract, review all route guides used by its helicopters.

It appeared the Rescue 116 crew lacked vital information on their pre-programmed route to refuel at Blacksod on north Mayo’s Mullet peninsula.

CHC Ireland has said a “review of all route guides in use is well under way” as part of its own “internal action”.

Mr Healy-Pratt said there were questions for CHC Ireland about training and information given to pilots.

He said the failure of the Honeywell enhanced ground proximity warning system due to incomplete data could be compared to “an airbag system in a vehicle failing to deploy when it is desperately needed”.

The warning system is not a navigational tool, but a situational awareness alert warning device.

Honeywell, which confirmed to the investigation unit that Blackrock lighthouse and island were not in its obstacle and terrain databases, pointed to conflicting information from an unnamed supplier.

‘Inappropriate’ to comment

The Irish Aviation Authority declined to comment when asked if it was responsible for approving operator route guides and other databases.

It said it would be “inappropriate” while an active investigation by the Air Accident Investigation Unit, which it is part of, is ongoing.

CHC Ireland said it was also bound by formal investigation protocols and could not be “drawn into questions of a technical nature”.

Ten Army mountaineers and several Garda crime-scene experts were flown to the island on Thursday morning by the Air Corps, and spent the first day searching 40m of cliff face an hour, using climbing equipment.

Divers with the Garda Water Unit undertook two dives, according to Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet gardaí, and the Naval Service diving section returned to north Mayo on Thursday evening. Searches will resume at first light on Friday.

This week’s two-day survey of the western end, and sub-sea areas around the sheer rock, aims to establish if the two winch crew fell out of the back of the helicopter when its tail section struck.

Lorna Siggins

Lorna Siggins

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