The mysterious ban on Ian Khama’s helicopter


As they do not need a runway, politicians love helicopters but in Britain and Norway, a ban on a model used by the president of Botswana, General Ian Khama, has aviation experts shaking their heads.

Of the 24 countries whose airlines are banned from entering Europe, more than half are from Africa, including Air Zimbabwe. According to the European Union (EU), the offending aircraft are not serviced to the right standard and pose a safety risk.

Air Botswana is not among them. Ironically, President Khama’s new helicopter, an EC225LP Super Puma Mk II, is barred from British and Norwegian airspace (Khama previously flew in a Bell 412 – the Super Puma was delivered in September 2016). The Sultan of Oman and German chancellor Angela Merkel also use them and they form special squadrons in the air forces of both Singapore and India.

The original Puma was launched some 40 years ago, and this giant workhorse has been flown from Africa to the Arctic. But after a 2016 accident involving an EC225LP, the type remains grounded in Britain and Norway, even though the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) cleared the EC225LP and AS332L2 for return to service in October last year.

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 oil rigs, but as crude fell – so the story runs – firms who had used them for years claimed the helicopters were unsafe.

The case has special relevance for South Africa where the air force has the Oryx, a locally developed version based on the Super Puma.

When it launched in 1999, the Super Puma was a solid design: strong, fast and with a range of nearly a thousand kilometres. Today they’re used by the militaries of Argentina, Oman, Uzbekistan, Taiwan, France and Mexico. 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, an EC225LP Super Puma 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 metres, 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 Helicopters manual, the owners didn’t send it for service. Investigators found a crack or fracture, and the gearbox had split in flight, forcing the blades to come away.

It would later be alleged that, before the helicopter was assembled, a truck carrying the gearbox was involved in a road accident in 2015, possibly damaging the part. It was inspected, repaired and released for flight by Airbus Helicopters and flew 260 flight hours on the helicopter prior to the crash. Apparently no physical evidence has been found that connects the road accident to the crash.

To date, investigators have not found what caused the gearbox failure.

Oil companies in the UK and Norway grounded all their Super Pumas, except those used in search and rescue.

But in London, the Civil Aviation Authority went further, banning the 225 from British air space. Norway followed, and within three months, 80 per cent of the world fleet was down for inspection.

Statoil is one of the world’s most profitable companies with operations in 36 countries including Angola. They were behind a recent discovery of gas in Tanzania and have partnered with the government of Mozambique to drill along the coast. Headquartered in Oslo and with assets of more than $100 billion, its biggest shareholder (67%) is the Norwegian government.

Statoil had chartered the doomed flight on 29 April. They grounded their own fleet of 225s, but then announced that all their Super Pumas would cease operation, opting instead for the US-made Sikorsky.

Slowly, the 225 moved back into use around the world, with just Britain and Norway insisting it stay out of service.

Quintin Frost, a South African pilot who has worked on all six continents, flying helicopters in Iraq, Botswana, the Swiss Alps and Australia, says there has been an unforeseen boost in second-hand sales. “The grounding saw these helicopters being sold across Europe at way below value. This has spread them around the world. Pilots love them, they’re low on fuel and we see them now in Asia, the Americas and over Africa.”

The air force of Mali recently took delivery of its first of two H215 Super Pumas, in October last year.

Theories on why the 2016 crash and the tragic loss of 13 people led to the grounding continue to be debated: competing firms in the shadows, a falling oil price, the chance to wiggle out of contracts? Those imposing the ban cite health and safety while supporters – including many pilots and technicians – say one of the best aircraft ever built has been maligned, for reasons that are still unclear.

Meanwhile, there is no sign of panic from Ian Khama, Angela Merkel and other heads of government or from military users across the globe.