Grounded Wessex hit island ridge

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 19 September, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 19 September, 1993, 12:00am

THE Royal Air Force Wessex helicopter crash during Severe Tropical Storm Becky was the second involving the RAF's choppers in the past month, the Sunday Morning Post can reveal.

One of the RAF's eight Wessex helicopters in Hong Kong damaged its fuel tank on a ridge during a joint forces anti-smuggling operation on an outlying island in mid-August. No one was injured.

The pilot, Squadron Leader Steve Murkin, flew the damaged helicopter, leaking fuel, back to Stanley Fort. The flight took place during a period when squadron leaders worldwide had been told to ban unnecessary flying of the Wessex due to investigations into the safety record of the choppers, designed almost 30 years ago.

In the August incident, a group of anti-smuggling personnel had been dropped off on an island by a helicopter of the 660 Squadron Army Air Corps. The pilot declined to go back to pick up the men, saying the location for the manoeuvre was too dangerous.

The RAF then offered to pick up the men, and sent the Wessex.

The incident was not reported to the RAF's flight safety committee and the damaged Wessex was flown back to base at Sek Kong the next day, still leaking fuel.

Squadron Leader Murkin last night described the incident as ''minor'', saying: ''The pipe was knocked off by a rock, which is normal. We knock the bottom of the helicopter a lot and they are built to take it. There was never any danger.

''There was no need to repair it because the Wessex has two fuel tanks. There was only 300 pounds [135 kilograms] of fuel remaining in one tank so we had to let that run out and then revert to the other tank. The only way of draining this fuel is by flying the helicopter.

''This was a non-event, nothing serious and that is why it was not reported to the flight safety committee.'' Squadron Leader Murkin said a 660 Squadron helicopter was used in the drop-off because the Wessex helicopters were partially grounded.

''We wanted to see if there was a way around the flying. We were called for the pick-up because we are equipped for night operations, they are not.

''At the time, the grounding only applied to training flights and non-operational journeys. This particular flight was classed as operational.'' A veteran soldier said: ''At flight safety meetings it is the required procedure to report such incidents but it never was because the squadron leader said it would not be worth it.

''These helicopters are very old and its safety standard speaks for itself, yet they are allowed to fly over one of the most populated areas in the world. I think this is an outrage.'' He said the group on the anti-smuggling exercise wanted to be extracted that night, and had put in a request to 660 Squadron. They gave their location but the pilot said it would be too dangerous to pick them up from the area.

''Then the RAF stepped in and said they would do it, ignoring the advice of the previous pilot who has 25 years in the army behind him.'' The source claimed: ''This Wessex turned up and dropped closer and closer on to the top of the ridge until its belly was finally pushed through the floor.

''The fuel tank was ruptured and the helicopter was dashed back to Stanley, spilling burning fuel on the way. It should have been taken to bits that night and the cause investigated, but I was horrified to learn it was flown back to Sek Kong the following day without being repaired.'' On Friday, an RAF Wessex helicopter was ditched in the sea after both engines failed while searching for a fishing boat during Severe Tropical Storm Becky. The four-man crew was plucked from the sea, uninjured but in shock.

An RAF spokesman last night said ''we are still considering whether the effort to get the helicopter out is worth it. It's been down there so long, there is no chance it'll ever fly again''. The RAF in Britain have set up a board of inquiry into Friday'scrash with an investigation team expected in the territory this week.

Last month, the Ministry of Defence in Britain banned non-operational use of all 60 Wessex helicopters used by the RAF around the world, including the eight based at Sek Kong. The grounding came after three cadets died and four others were injured when aWessex crashed in Snowdonia, North Wales, on August 13.