They all knew the perils involved and they had been rigorously trained in the event of a crash but few can have been truly prepared for the terrifying moment their helicopter plummeted towards the waves on that dark, foggy night miles out to sea.
Yesterday, the relief on the faces of the oil workers was evident as they celebrated their rescue from the wreckage of a craft that ditched on its way to a BP North Sea platform. At the break of dawn, they came ashore to stroll the short distance to a waiting bus, smiling and waving. One gave a thumbs up in masterful demonstration of understatement.
As experts began the task of trying to recover the battered wreckage of the 11m pound Super Puma from waters 200 kms east of Aberdeen, the 18 men who survived with barely a scratch returned to their families "in good shape and high spirits", a spokesman for BP said.
Last night, BP announced that it was temporarily suspending using Super Puma helicopters for North Sea flights "as a precaution" but would review the matter in the next day or so. Yesterday details of the "textbook rescue" emerged as air investigators began the meticulous task of trying to piece together exactly what made the powerful Super Puma EC-225 ditch on its way to the Etap oilfield on Wednesday night.
The helicopter was just 500m short of the platform at 6.40pm when it went down. In a crash landing praised by experts yesterday, the pilots managed to keep it upright and the 16 oil workers and two crew scrambled into two life rafts, tied together, without plunging into icy seas with swells of up to 10ft. Spotting their distress flares, the nearby platform alerted the emergency services.
Aberdeen coastguards co-ordinated an operation involving an RAF Nimrod, RAF Sea King and two civilian aircraft as well as boats. Three injured passengers were winched to safety by a Bond helicopter and the other 15 were recovered by a platform lifeboat and transferred to the Caledonian Victory which sailed for Aberdeen.
Squadron Leader Barry Neilson, of RAF Kinloss, said that an RAF Sea King was scrambled from Lossiemouth, along with a Bond Offshore helicopter under contract to BP and a Super Puma from the Ekofisk field. "The aircraft that had ditched was sitting upright on the water, although the tail boom was missing, and the crew and passengers had managed to evacuate the aircraft very successfully and were in their dinghies.
"It was very foggy out there and the first aircraft to arrive on the scene, the BP aircraft, had some difficulty getting down to the surface but succeeded, and lifted three of the crew out of the dinghy," he said.
An RAF Nimrod flew over the scene to ensure the safety of the rescue helicopters: "The last thing we wanted to do was to have two of our search and rescue helicopters collide over the one already in the water."
The three injured men were taken to the oil platform and flown by RAF helicopter to Aberdeen Royal Infirmary, where they arrived shortly before midnight to claps and cheers from hospital staff. All were able to walk and were discharged an hour later.
Meanwhile, the remainder of the men docked in Aberdeen at 5.30am yesterday and spent two hours on board providing statements to Grampian Police before being allowed home to recover from their ordeal.
Yesterday Bond Offshore, the operators of the aircraft confirmed that it was in the process of trying to recover the Super Puma, which will be lifted on to a BP support vessel and will then be brought back to the mainland.
- THE INDEPENDENT