Rescue 116 crash – flying blind?

Crew would have had less than a minute to recognise Black Rock island

 

It is still too early to answer with any degree of certainty the questions about why Rescue 116 crashed into Black Rock island in the early hours of March 14th, although the preliminary report of the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) points to important contributory factors, problems which need urgently to be addressed in other rescue craft.

The Dublin-based Sikorsky S-92 had been tasked to provide “top cover” to its Sligo counterpart and its crash claimed the lives of its Irish Coast Guard crew, Capt Dara Fitzpatrick (45), co-pilot Capt Mark Duffy (51), winch operator Paul Ormsby (53) and winchman Ciaran Smith (38). The bodies of the latter two have still not been recovered.

In the dark and in poor visibility – put at two to three kilometres – Capt Fitzpatrick and her crew would have had less than a minute travelling at some 140 km per hour to recognise the looming island through the mist and drizzle, identify it as a real threat, and take evasive action. Her problem was compounded by a lack of familiarity with the route, which both she and her co-pilot acknowledged and discussed, and the reality that among the several moving maps which her electronic navigation system offered her as options were a number which did not flag the island to the pilot – “the exact information in relation to Black Rock and Lighthouse varied from none, to detailed,” the report found of the electronic maps.

Nor was the island programmed into the failsafe ground proximity system (EGPWS) which might have provided a last-minute warning . And, for whatever reason, the weather radar consulted by the co-pilot seems not to have effectively identified the size and shape of Black Rock.

There is one thing that is worse than flying blind, it is flying blind in the mistaken and confident belief that one’s route is clear and safe. The S-92 is a modern aircraft with very advanced avionics. A question yet to be answered is whether it was precisely this false comfort – provided by the the helicopter’s systems to its pilots – that may have fatefully disarmed and disorientated them?

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