It has been confirmed by air crash investigators that the downed S-92 helicopter R116 struck rocks on Blackrock island 13km off the north Mayo coast before it crashed. The Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) said that “marks” on some of the recovered wreckage from the helicopter are “consistent with the aircraft contacting rocky surfaces on the western end of Blackrock”.
In a statement last night (Monday), AAIU chief inspector Jurgen Whyte and investigator in charge Paul Farrell said that the investigation has “not yet definitively identified the initial point of impact”.
They also said that “at this early stage” it is “not possible to be definitive about the exact nature of damage to the recovered wreckage, or indeed the circumstances of the accident”.
Late last week, the AAIU team recovered “significant wreckage” close to the lighthouse on Blackrock – the last known location of the helicopter before it lost communication early on March 14th on an approach to refuel at Blacksod Bay on the Mullet peninsula during the early stages of support for a medical evacuation. Meanwhile it has emerged that the ill-fated helicopter was subjected to a safety and maintenance inspection just three months ago.
It has been confirmed all five of the Sikorsky S-92A helicopters in the Irish Coast Guard fleet, including Sligo's R118, were checked in the wake of a service alert issued by the US aviation giant at Christmas.
Sikorsky issued the service notice after an incident involving precisely the same make and model of helicopter in the North Sea.
In that case, an S-92A encountered what were described as "unexpected control responses" during a routine North Sea shuttle flight on December 28.
The helicopter made an emergency landing on an oil rig helipad - but the aircraft spun on landing causing damage to its rotors and also gouging the landing deck.
No-one was injured in the incident.All five Irish Coast Guard helicopters were then inspected. The Dublin and Sligo helicopters - both of which were involved in the rescue operation last Tuesday off the Mayo coast - were in the second batch inspected.
The Irish Coast Guard said no issues were raised.
One source said that while nothing was being ruled out at this stage of the Air Accident Investigation Unit (AAIU) probe, it was unlikely the rotor unit was an issue in the loss of Rescue 116.
It is hoped that a break in the weather today will allow the full recovery operation to continue in the area.
Debris is still being recovered, but the fuselage has still not been located, and it is hoped that the flight recorder is within the structure or close to it – and that the three missing airmen may also be located.
An accredited representative from the US National Transportation Safety Board working with the AAIU who had advised the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the aircraft manufacturer, Sikorsky.
The AAIU said it had also received assistance, support and advice from the British Air Accidents Investigation Branch, two of whose inspectors attended Blacksod Bay.