On 16 July 1983 G-BEON, a Sikorsky S-61 British Airways helicopter, crashed into the southern Celtic Sea en route from Penzance to St Mary's, Isles of Scilly. Of the 26 people on board only six survived the crash which was the worst British civil helicopter crash up to that time though this unwanted 'record' was not to last long. On 6 November 1986 a British International Helicopters Chinook ditched at sea off Sumburgh Head, Shetland, killing 45 of the 47 people on board. This remains the worst helicopter accident in Europe. Helicopters are not normally used to carry large numbers of passengers though some are capable of doing this and are often found operating in challenging environments such as the North Sea, where they are able to land on oil rigs. The B.I.H. Chinook was returning from the Brent oilfield with workers going off duty when she suffered catastrophic mechanical failure.
What of G-BEON in the Celtic Sea? The Air Investigation Branch investigation put the crash down to pilot error while attempting to fly at low altitude in poor visibility. One of the post-accident recommendations was the mandatory installation of audible height warnings on passenger helicopters operating offshore. Speaking in a parliamentary debate on the crash, MP Malcolm Bruce said, “Commercial pressures mean helicopters are operating within margins which are not accepted and would not be accepted for fixed wing aircraft.” (Newcastle Journal 23/7/1983)
G-BEON had left Penzance at 11.10am having been delayed by poor visibility. Her sister aircraft had left at 10.46am and arrived at St Mary's at 11.06am having completed the whole flight according to visual flight rules (VFR), a minimum of 3000 feet forward visibility at a cloud ceiling of 300 feet. Having received confirmation of the VFR compliant conditions the Sikorsky took off piloted by Capt. Dominic Lawlor (37) and Capt. Neil Charleton (30). Lawlor was in command and had nearly 4000 hours of pilot time behind him while Charleton had over 3700 hours. Both had over 2000 hours in the Sikorsky S-61 and both were experienced on the Penzance to St Mary's route. The aircraft has received its annual certificate of airworthiness on 22 June 1983. The flight time was scheduled as 26 minutes, surely nothing could go wrong.
G-BEON climbed to 2000 feet and as she crossed Longships lighthouse visibility was assessed as over three quarters of mile in haze. The crew saw their sister aircraft below them at 1500 feet on her way home to Penzance. The crew said that at about this point the returning aircraft passed them a weather report for Scilly reporting visibility at three quarters of a mile at 300 feet. At 11.30am the crew had radioed that they were at 500 feet with good visibility and could see the sea below them. Six miles out from St Mary's Lawlor began to descend to the minimum permitted altitude of 250 feet, confirming by instrument when they had completed the manoeuvre. This would get him below the reported 300 feet altitude which he understood to be the cloud base. The odd thing about this weather, on which Lawlor was acting, is that the other aircraft had no record of having sent it and its source remains a mystery.
At about 11.35am St Mary's airfield gave the helicopter clearance to land and shortly after, 1.7 miles from the island, the Sikorsky hit the sea, bouncing twice like a skimming stone. G-BEON never responded to the 11.35 am signal from St Mary's. The 90 knot impact badly damaged the fuselage and water flooded in, the machine rolled over and quickly sank. The analysis in the AAIB reports states that, “Neither of the pilots was able to describe how the accident occurred because up to the moment of impact each was under the impression that the helicopter was at 250 feet”. Lawlor admitted that his piloting “undoubtedly did play a part in the accident” but what precisely happened in the last few fatal seconds of the flight will remain a mystery.
The investigator proposed that Lawlor had not trimmed the helicopter quite correctly as he slowed her down following the descent to 250 feet and that the pilot received no visual or non-visual clues that G-BEON was still slowly descending. The lack of non-visual clues indicates a slowish descent while the lack of visual clues suggests mist or fog. The investigator estimated that the whole descent from 250 feet to impact would have taken about a minute, a minute during which the co-pilot was completely engaged with the radar. Between them the pilots should have checking both instruments and visuals. The finding was that, in these conditions “without a company operating procedure capable of ensuring that the flight instruments would be continuously monitored” company practice “was one which eroded safety margins to the extent that it allowed catastrophe to be the consequence of human error of a kind already well known in aviation. This practice was thus a major contributory factor.”
The six survivors - the two pilots, two teenagers and two 60 year old women – stayed afloat in the sea using suitcases as floats, none had life jackets. “The surviving passengers highly commended the actions of the two pilots in sustaining them in the water.” They were rescued by the St Mary's lifeboat, Robert Edgar, at about 12.25pm, after being in the water for nearly an hour. The two teenagers, Howard Goddard and Ellen Hanslow both lost their parents in the crash. One of two women, Lucille Langley-Williams of Scilly, described the event: “It was very quick. I bumped forward and hit my head on the seat in front.” By the time she realised what had happened she was already chest-deep in water, “I closed my mouth and took a deep breath and by then I was under water”. She released her seat belt, managed to open the door and floated to the surface. Her travelling companion, Megan Smith, also of Scilly, also survived the crash.
G-Beon was recovered from the sea on 19th July, inside her fuselage were the bodies of 17 passengers, some still strapped in the seats. The bodies of cabin attendant Robin Lander (22) and two of the passengers were never recovered.
At the time of the crash the pilots' union, BALPA, had recommended a alteration to the VFR standard with a minimum of one nautical mile of visibility. This had arisen from a 1981 North Sea crash. In 1983 a review was still under way but had the recommendations been brought into force it's likely that the G-BEON accident would not have happened as the pilot would have been flying on instruments and would have noticed his unintentional descent.
Times given are GMT, as given in the AAIB report, as the accident took place in July the actual time of day would have been one hour later.
This account is based almost entirely on the Air Accident Investigation Branch report where more details of the precise cause of the accident are discussed.