On the 6th of November 1986, at 1132 hours, I was the Captain of a Chinook helicopter that crashed just two miles short of its destination, the Sumburgh Airport in the Shetland Islands, 150 nautical miles north of the mainland of the United Kingdom. At the time it was the worst-ever civilian helicopter crash, taking the lives of 45 out of the 47 people on board.
One passenger and I survived the crash. How or why we survived is a mystery. There is absolutely no explanation—just pure luck! For a long time after the accident, I used to ask myself, “why were the other passengers not lucky?” I guess nobody can answer that question.
When the helicopter wreckage was retrieved from the sea, the British Aircraft accident investigating inspector met me and wondered how I could have possibly survived the crash. I not only survived the crash, I came out with very minor injuries.
I joined British Airways Helicopters in 1975 after leaving the Indian Air Force. In 1982 I converted on to Chinooks, the Boeing Vertol BV-234, the biggest civilian helicopter in the world. By 1986 I had already flown over 2500 hours on the Chinooks and loved every minute of it
I have flown helicopters for over 45 years. In spite of the accident, I would say that the Chinook is the best helicopter I have ever flown, because of the tremendous amount power it has and with full fuel we had six hours of endurance. We were always able to carry a full load of passengers with full fuel on board.We had six Chinooks in the company. One of our Chinooks used to go to Sumburgh, Shetland Islands, on Monday morning and operate out of Sumburgh for five days, returning to Aberdeen on Friday evening.
I had taken G-BWFC, a Chinook helicopter, to Sumburgh for the week on November 3, 1986. We had two sets of crews: one did the morning two flights to the East Shetland Basin (just over 100nm northeast of Sumburgh Airport) and the second came in at 1300 hours and did one flight in the afternoon.
First Officer Neville Nixon, my co-pilot, who was 43, had left Bristow Helicopters a few years earlier and had given up flying to help his wife, Pauline, to set up a chemist shop in York, England. After three years the shop was doing very well and he found that Pauline could manage the shop by herself. He loved flying and decided to come back to flying.
He joined British Airways Helicopters in the summer of 1986. Since Neville hadn’t flown for nearly three years, he was very keen to fly as much as possible. On the 6th of November, he was roistered to do the afternoon shift. Since morning shift did two flights and the afternoon shift did only one, Neville had swapped his shift with First Officer Mike Stanley. Sadly for him, this change of shift cost him his life.
Thursday, the 6th of November 1986, was a beautiful day at Sumburgh Airport. The wind was light and it didn’t feel cold. I expected good flying conditions. Neville was already in the operations doing the planning for our flight by the time I arrived that morning. After finishing the planning he rang up his home. That was the last time he spoke to his wife.
Mike Walton, our cabin attendant, arrived about 0730 and went to do his checks on the helicopter. Checks included making sure that cabin was clean and all the safety equipment was on board.
Our original plan was to land at Brent Bravo and Brent Delta. At the last minute we were given a load to drop at Brent Alpha also. This added about ten minutes to our trip. These ten minutes became very important when we were returning to base and we crashed just two miles short (about two minutes before touchdown) of our destination. Destiny, yes?
We taxied across from our hanger at Virkie to Wilsness passenger terminal, on other side of the runway, to pick up our passengers. After doing the onboard briefing, we taxied at 0900 for our flight to the Brent field.
I was the handling pilot on the way out and my co-pilot was looking after all the radios and other admin duties, like load sheets. The flight was uneventful and after landing at Brent Alpha, Charlie and Delta we set course back to Sumburgh at 1043. We had a full complement of 44 passengers and three crew on board. Neville was the handling pilot now and I was doing all the paperwork plus the radio calls.
We climbed to 2500 feet and our route back to Sumburgh was via track Mike. We flew in and out of clouds, but the weather was nice and we had a very pleasant flight. We talked about all sorts of things to pass the time. Neville told me about his brother who had been to India and had loved it there.
And all the time our bevel ring gear in the front gearbox was breaking up and we had no way of knowing of the looming disaster. I discovered this when I listened to the cockpit voice recorder at the Aircraft Accident Investigation Board’s workshop. I could hear the noise of the gear breaking up for the entire 30 minutes of the tape. HUMs would have been a great help.
At 40nm we changed from Sumburgh radar to Sumburgh approach. We started a slow descent down to 1000 feet, and did our approach checks. At 10nm we changed over to the tower and continued our descent to 500 feet. When we were just over two minutes to land, I contacted my company and gave them the routine two minutes to landing call.
In the Bristow hanger, Captain Gordon Mitchell and the rest of the coast guard crew were getting ready to do search and rescue training that morning. They had the helicopter fuelled and ready. They were just waiting for one of the crews to return from an errand; otherwise they would have been airborne earlier. It was a coincident that they got airborne just after 1129, just when we were on finals for landing. The control tower advised the Coast Guard helicopter, “Oscar Charlie” to look out for the Chinook which was on finals.
About 3.5 nm from the runway, we started hearing a whining noise and it seemed to be getting louder. The noise did not sound dangerous. Just then our cabin attendant, Mike Walton, came through the door and told us that he had checked the cabin and that the passengers were all strapped in and ready for landing. He heard us discussing the noise, so he told us the noise was coming from the front gearbox, which was just above his head, behind the cockpit. He also didn’t seem alarmed by the noise.
By now we were only two minutes from landing, approximately 250-300 feet above the surface of the water, in the descent, and our speed was reducing below 100 knots. We decided that on landing we would inform the engineers to sort out the noise before we went for our next flight.
I informed the control tower that “Foxtrot Charlie” was on finals and we were cleared to land. On finals, I saw the Coast Guard Sikorsky S-61 take off for their training.
After informing us that the passengers were all ready for landing, our cabin attendant had opened the cabin door and closed it behind him. I don’t think he had a chance to sit down and strap himself in. A fraction of a second after he closed the door, at 1132 to be exact, we heard a very loud bang. Suddenly the helicopter pitched up and was pointing vertically up—I could see the sky ahead of me. I had no time to give a mayday call.
But of course we were falling backwards towards the North Sea. The helicopter, which had been travelling at about 100 knots, had came to a sudden stop and was now pointing vertically up. Sadly, the whiplash effect killed at least half of the passengers.
My co-pilot probably died at that moment. Being the handling pilot, he was sitting without his back touching the backrest, with the result that the whiplash effect broke his neck. I, being the non-handling pilot, had my back resting at the backrest. The whiplash effect on me was not as great, though thinking about it or talking about it, like right now, I start feeling the pain in my back.
What happened? I found out later that the whining noise we had been hearing was actually our front gear (spiral bevel ring gear) breaking up. Once the gear split, it was a matter of 20-30 seconds before the two counter-rotating rotor blades hit each other and that was the loud bang that we heard. The rear rotor blades where shaking so much that they, along with the gearbox (weighing more than a ton), parted company from the helicopter and splashed into the water about one nautical mile away from us.
One gentleman standing about five miles away on top of a hill, near Sumburgh Airport, saw our helicopter falling towards the sea and he actually pointed out to the salvage team where to look for the rear rotor blades. No, he didn’t have a video camera!
Now there was no rear rotor. Nothing was holding the back end of the helicopter up. So the back fell and the nose was pointing up to the sky. Sitting in the cockpit, I could see the sky straight in front of me. I got the feeling we were going straight up. Instinctively I grabbed the cyclic control and pushed it all the way forward to level the helicopter. It appeared I had done an outside loop. I felt negative G force when the helicopter seemed to move from pointing vertically up to vertically down. Now I could see the sea in front of me. It appeared the helicopter was now rushing, nose-down, vertically towards the sea.
What actually happened was that, with the break away of the rear set of rotor blades and the gearbox from the helicopter, the whole body of the helicopter had become weak and had started breaking up. When I pushed the cyclic stick all the way forward, the front rotor blades, which were still responding to the controls, flipped the cockpit section of the helicopter over. Now only the floor of the cockpit was attached to the main part of the helicopter.
My action of moving the cyclic stick forward was perhaps responsible for saving the two of us who survived. The whole helicopter was falling backwards towards the sea. The cockpit, which had tipped over and was still attached to the cabin at the floor, seemed to be going straight towards the sea. That also meant that there was a huge hole at the top of the cabin, where the cockpit had been. This hole is the one through which Eric Morrans, the other survivor, was thrown when he was unconscious under water.
While we were falling, I was aware that everything around me was breaking up. I was thinking double time to see if there was anything I could do to save the helicopter and all of us in it. To me it felt as if I was on a roller coaster ride and I was wishfully thinking/ hoping that at the bottom, the helicopter would roll out, we would land on the water, and everybody would come out. Strange—not for a moment did I think that anybody was going to die!
Later I discovered that the front rotor blade had chopped off the part of windscreen in front of the co-pilot. Broken bits from the windscreen were flying in and some were hitting me on the face all the way down to the sea. The left side of my face was all cut up and my nose was broken. I discovered this when I was in the hospital. Amazingly, nothing hit my eyes.
When we hit the water, the rear end of the helicopter took all the impact. Nearly 20 feet of the rear end of the helicopter was completely smashed. All the seats came off their moorings. Only my seat looked like a seat after the accident; I discovered this when the cockpit had been salvaged.
Later I also discovered that the cockpit broke off from the main cabin on impact, and seemed to splash in the water from a height of about 30-40 feet. The rest of the passengers and our cabin attendant died on impact. No one drowned. Only one passenger survived.
The North Sea is pretty cold. The water temperature that day must have been around seven or eight degrees Celsius.
The cockpit, with me still in it, seemed to keep going down and down and down in the water. It must have gone down at least 30 feet (10 meters) below the surface, before it stopped moving. I could see the sunlight and I knew which way I had to swim. However, when I left the seat and started to move I discovered that I was going the wrong way. It was getting darker. I turned around and headed towards the sunlight. I passed through the emergency window, which had blown away on impact, I think, and started to swim up towards the surface.
Later I discovered that I had not even unbuckled my belt. When the cockpit was salvaged, we discovered that one strap had broken but the other three were still in the locked position. I have no idea how I came out of those straps.
It was a beautiful sunshine which met me when I reached the surface. I was feeling very cold and was breathing very fast and hard. I saw what looked like a big bowl. I think it was part of the fuel tank cover. I managed to climb into it. But two seconds later a small wave tipped me over and I was back in the water. I wasn’t worried; in the back of my mind I knew the rescue helicopter would be overhead in a few minutes. I was just waiting for them to come and pick me up.
Then a body popped up next to me and then another and another. There must have been at least seven bodies floating close to me. They were not moving or doing anything. That was the first time it occurred to me that perhaps some people were dead. Then there was a lot of hydraulic fluid and broken pieces of the helicopter that were floating around in the sea near me. I could see broken pieces everywhere.
When the Coast Guard helicopter turned to go to his training area, he asked the control tower where the Chinook was. The controller looked up and couldn’t see the Chinook on finals and was amazed because he had seen us just 30 seconds earlier and had given us clearance to land.
The Coast Guard crew saw some things floating in the sea and headed towards that area. As soon as I saw the coast guard helicopter, I waved. The helicopter came overhead me, the winch man came down, put a strap around me, and winched me up. My shoes were coming off but for some reason I kept hanging on to them. However, I never saw my shoes again.
Only one 20-year-old passenger, Eric Morrans, survived the crash. He was sitting in the front row of seats, which faces backwards. He was facing the 42 passengers and he saw the fear of death in the faces of them, when the helicopter was plunging vertically backwards into the sea. He could make out that all of them knew that they were going to die. In fact, some of the passengers had already died because of whiplash, when the rear set of blades parted company from the helicopter.
Eric was just plain lucky—like me. Instinctively he had zipped up his survival suit when he heard the big bang. There were a lot of broken pieces flying around in the cabin and he was injured and became unconscious. When the helicopter plunged into the water he went with it. However, when he was about thirty feet under water, his survival suit, which was full of air, acted like a football under water, and threw him out through the hole behind him and towards the surface of the water.
When he reached the surface, one wave came over his face and woke him up. Luckily for him, just as his eyes opened a dinghy inflated just next to him. He quickly got hold of it and tied his hand with the rope from the dinghy and passed out again. Then he heard the helicopter overhead and saw me being winched up. He got worried that he might be left behind, so he started waving frantically.
He was winched up after me. We were now both in the coast guard helicopter. My suit was full of cold water, so even though I was out of the sea, I was still in cold water. Every time the crew came to see him I made a hand signal, requesting him to cut the survival suit so the water could go out. With all the helicopter noise he couldn’t understand me, however ten minutes later he realised what I was telling him and he cut my survival suit and the water came out. My eyes were closing by now. When the crew realised that both of us were closing our eyes, he went and told the captain to take us to the hospital. By this time other helicopters were on the scene and a rescue ship was on the way.
When we arrived at the hospital, my body temperature was around 33 degree Celsius. They cut open all my clothes and wrapped me up in a space blanket. It is like a tin foil; the idea was that I would warm my own self up. My eyes were still closed, but suddenly I heard the doctor talking to me in Hindi, my native language. Then I knew I was still alive. They don’t speak Hindi in heaven, do they? Or maybe they do!
The mechanical failure that caused the gearbox break was a one in a million chance. That it resulted in so many fatalities was a terrible orchestration of events. The Chinook was withdrawn from civil operation, though it is still popularly used by the military. Friends advised me not to go back to flying. After all, the company would pension me off comfortably. But I knew “money wouldn’t fill the hours.” Flying was all I had ever wanted to do. By February, I was ready to fly again. The company insisted on psychiatric checks, however, so I resumed flying in April.
I was 45 when the accident happened and flew for another 20 years before retiring.