Shell Temporarily Grounds Sikorsky Choppers Amid Probe

Sikorsky S-76C Helicopter
(Click to Enlarge)

NEW YORK (THE WALL STREET JOURNAL via Dow Jones Newswires), Feb. 2, 2009

In an unusual move prompted by concerns about the safety of a widely used model of Sikorsky helicopter, Royal Dutch Shell PLC's U.S. unit has temporarily grounded a fleet of the choppers, and instead is relying on boats to take most workers to and from oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico.

The company's decision to suspend use of a fleet of at least 12 Sikorsky S-76C helicopters operated for it by subcontractor PHI Inc., Metairie, La., follows the unexplained crash of a S-76C in the same region last month, which killed eight of the nine people aboard.

Shell hasn't used the helicopters since the crash, according to a company spokesman.

The accident continues to stump federal and industry investigators, according to people familiar with the matter. Both engines shut down suddenly in good weather, they said, with no Mayday call from the pilots and no obvious clues since then about the cause. Investigators suspect that electrical and steering systems also may have stopped working at the same time.

Manufactured by a unit of United Technologies Corp., the S-76 has a good safety record and is a workhorse for many offshore-oil operations, emergency-medical transport firms and other commercial services in the U.S. and elsewhere. About 700 are used world-wide. Sikorsky said there have been three fatal crashes of the model since 2004.

A spokesman for Sikorsky declined to comment on the investigation, but described Shell's actions as a local "precautionary safety stand-down."

The latest crash occurred in a swamp a few minutes after takeoff from Amelia, La. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board recovered the flight-date recorder and digital engine-control units. But nearly a month after the accident, investigators are still mulling a number of theories, ranging from potential fuel problems to a possible bird strike that might have pushed a section of the windshield into the cockpit, slamming the throttles back to idle, according to people familiar with the matter.

In light of the uncertainty, Shell's U.S. unit decided to "stand down" the fleet and arrange for "interim personnel transportation" via boats for most of its 1,500 contractors and employees in the Gulf, according to spokesman. They won't resume flying until the company feels "comfortable" about the results of the investigation, the spokesman said. It isn't clear how long that will take.

A spokesman for PHI declined to take questions. The safety board also declined to comment.

The investigation has attracted significant industry attention partly due to the well-known companies involved, as well as the mysterious nature of the accident.

Copyright (c) 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.


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