Rescue 116 search: Helicopter ‘black box’ recovered

Flight recorder said to be in good condition with no external damage

Members of the Naval Service leave the LE ‘Samuel Beckett’ aboard a small boat. The rsearch for the remains of the three missing crew members resumed on Friday. Photograph: Collins

Members of the Naval Service leave the LE ‘Samuel Beckett’ aboard a small boat. The rsearch for the remains of the three missing crew members resumed on Friday. Photograph: Collins

 

The “black box” from Rescue 116 has been recovered by Naval Service divers during the continued search for three missing airmen off the north Mayo coast.

Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) chief inspector Jurgen Whyte confirmed that the helicopter’s data recorder was “visually in good condition” with no apparent external damage at 4.30pm on Friday.

However, there was no confirmation as to whether the bodies of the three air crew- co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy and winch team Paul Ormsby and Ciaran Smith - had been located on the aircraft.

The three have been missing since the Irish Coast Guard Dublin-based Sikorsky S-92 helicopter crashed in the early hours of March 14th, and pilot Capt Dara Fitzpatrick is the only member of the crew to have been recovered from the sea.

She was taken on board the RNLI Achill lifeboat south of Blackrock island within several hours of the crash, and flown by the Sligo-based Rescue 118 to hospital where she was pronounced dead.

At a briefing shortly before 5.30pm at Blacksod pier, Belmullet Garda SuptTony Healy said divers were still actively working on the primary aim of recovering the three men.

Supt Healy said that another full dive cycle would take place on Friday evening on the wreckage, which is located in a narrow channel on the south-east tip of Blackrock island 13 km west of the Mullet peninsula.

“We are actively investigating the wreckage,”Supt Healy said,and recovery of the flight recorders was a “significant step”.

Mr Whyte explained that it was always the priority to recover the three missing air crew, but protocols within the AAIU’s work dictated that when the flight recorder was seen, it must be recovered.

“That was achieved quite fast late in the day; it was not particularly difficult to recover it but the concern was that if we didn’t take it at that time we might never get it,” he said.

“So we took it and we have it now and that’s the main thing and our focus now is to seek and recover the three remaining crew members,” Mr Whyte said.

The combined cockpit voice recorder and flight data recorder has been taken on board the Irish Lights ship Granuaile which has been providing a platform for the dive team, along with several smaller vessels, throughout today.

Download ‘next week’

Mr Whyte said the device was in the possession of AAIU investigator-in-charge Paul Farrell and it would be taken to under escort to Baldonnel aerodrome in west Dubin and flown to the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) in Britain on Saturday for download “hopefully by Tuesday or Wednesday of next week,” he said.

While it seemed to have sustained no damage, it would have to be dried out and prepared for download by British air accident counterparts and only then could its condition be confirmed, he said.

Supt Healy said divers were still “actively working” on the search for the three missing men, and diving would continue for some hours Friday evening.

The Granuaile would be “working throughout the night”, he said, and may deploy the remotely operated vehicle (ROV) when divers are out of the water.

Irish Coast Guard incident manager Micheal O’Toole said there was an increased aerial, sea and shore search focus, and this increased tempo was to take advantage of the benign weather, he said.

The Civil Defence had also deployed drone crews to assist in shore search, Mr O’Toole said.

The RNLI Achill and Ballyglass lifeboats put to sea early this morning to conduct shore searches.

The Naval Service diving section led by Lieut Daniel Humphries undertook its first in a series of descents at 11.30am on the helicopter wreckage,in a concerted bid to find missing Irish Coast Guard airmen.

The Naval Service dive team has a four-day weather window for the first time in the challenging recovery effort, with light to gentle winds, mainly from an easterly direction forecast in the area right through today to Monday evening.

This has helped to ease the swell around Blackrock island, and at a briefing at lunchtime on Friday, Supt Tony Healy of Belmullet gardai said weather and sea conditions are “next to ideal”.

“This is quite a deep dive and we are very conscious for their safety... it’s a delicate, dangerous operation, but we are operating with their safety in mind at all times,” Supt Healy said.

Irish Coast Guard incident manager Derek Flanagan explained that there was a three-nautical-mile exclusion zone around the island.

The military-trained divers are tethered to the surface with an umbilical, allowing communications to prepare the next pair for their descent, he explained.

‘Buddy system’

“The divers work in pairs in a buddy system, and spend as much time as they can within that nine to ten minute window before surfacing,” Mr Flanagan said.

“As they are coming back up, they are quickly prepping the next two divers to go in,” he said.

He explained that the preliminary work from early this morning involved placing a “shot line” close to the helicopter site as a guide for the dive team and support.

The Irish Lights ship Granuaile, which has the Naval Service recompression chamber on board, moved as close as possible to allow for quick transfer of any diver in an emergency situation.

“We have such a small amount of time down there that every minute is crucial,” Mr Flanagan said, and the divers were continually being risk assessed.

On-scene co-ordination is being provided by Naval Service patrol ship LE Samuel Beckett under the command of Lieut Cdr Darragh Kirwan.

At the earlier briefing on Friday, Mr Whyte said the AAIU had no further information on the cause of the crash and had not located an impact point for the helicopter on Blackrock island.

On Monday of this week, the AAIU investigators, assisted by British colleagues, confirmed that a tail section of the helicopter recovered from the plateau had evidence of contact with rock on the western side of the island.

A preliminary report would be published by the AAIU within 30 days as part of international requirements. This would “ identify basic facts as we know them”, he said.

“If we have something before that, we will issue it,”Mr Whyte said.

Images taken by the Marine Institute’s remotely operated vehicle (ROV) deployed from Granuaile over the last two days have informed the dive team. The ROV located the wreckage on Wednesday this week.

Community support

At a briefing on Thursday night, Supt Healy said “the hope is that the three men will be in or near the wreckage.

Minister of State for Regional Economic Development Michael Ring and his colleague, Minister of State for Defence Paul Kehoe, were briefed on the LE Samuel Beckett in Blacksod Bay Thursday afternoon.

Mr Ring paid tribute to the strong community support for the families of the three missing airmen and the late Capt Dara Fitzpatrick.

“This is a major tragedy for the families but a big tragedy for the State as well,”Mr Ring said.

“I’m here to pay tribute to the local community, to John Gallagher [chairman of Comharchumann Forbartha Ionad Deirbhile Eachléim Teo] and his team, and everybody from this community that have responded,”he said.

Mr Ring emphasised the role played by local fishermen, shores searchers, and the sustenance provided by a team of volunteers led by Annette Gallagher in Halla Naomh Bhreandaín in Eachléim village.

Food has been cooked in the hall every day since the search began, residents across Erris have arrived with stew, lasagne and pastries, coffee has come from Sligo, and one Indian take-away owner based on Achill island arrived with prepared meals this week. .

A ten-year old Castlebar schoolgirl, Katie Frazer, sent a letter with buns she baked which has been pinned on the wall of the hall.

“It’s nothing big, it’s only a couple of buns, but I wanted to help in anyway possible,” she wrote, thanking the volunteers.