Mini-robot now key to search as investigators fear Rescue 116 helicopter hit rocks in mystery crash
It is now feared the downed Irish Coast Guard Rescue 116 helicopter may have hit rocks on a remote Mayo island before crashing into the sea at the foot of steep cliffs. By Luke Byrne and Ralph Riegel
Preliminary examination of wreckage from the US-built Sikorsky S-92A helicopter has given further weight to the theory that the aircraft suffered a catastrophic incident seconds before it either crashed into the sea, or disintegrated after an attempted emergency landing on the isolated Black Rock island.
Last night, the Irish Coast Guard confirmed that the medical emergency the Rescue 116 was responding to related to a crewman losing a thumb on board a fishing vessel. A spokesman said a call was made that the helicopter should be dispatched after it was decided the crewman needed prompt medical attention due to the risk of septicaemia.
A sonar is placed over the side of a boat in the water to track the transponder during the search and rescue at first light at Blacksod Pier after the Rescue 116 helicopter crash. Pic Steve Humphreys 15th March 2017
As the search continues - it looks increasingly likely that the helicopter collided with rocks.
Sources told the Irish Independent that the wreckage recovered so far displayed no sign of 'petalling', or the outward tearing of fuselage panels, consistent with an on-board explosion.
Debris from the missing Rescue 116 helicopter is brought back to Blacksod pier from another Coast Guard Helicopter. Photo: Steve Humphreys
Similarly, none of the wreckage recovered has shown signs of intense heat or melting, which would have occurred if there had been an on-board electrical or fuel leak fire.
The helicopter is feared to have disintegrated having failed in a landing bid at Black Rock island, some 12km off the Mayo coast, or crashed directly into the sea at the base of steep cliffs.
The fuselage is believed to rest on the seabed at a depth of 40 metres just off Black Rock island. Wreckage was also found on the island.
Aviation and marine officials are baffled as to why no alarms were raised at 1am last Tuesday when the helicopter crashed into the sea.
Jim Murray Mayo Civil Defence prepares to search along the coastline at Annagh Co Mayo for the missing Rescue 116 helicopter and crew with their Matrice 600 Drone. Photo Steve Humphreys
No mayday was received from the vastly experienced crew of Captain Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith.
Their last communication - seconds before the helicopter vanished off radar and radio contact - was a routine message that they were minutes from refuelling at Blacksod Bay. No automatic alarms were triggered by the multitude of safety devices on board the S-92A.
"The likelihood is that we will only know precisely what happened when the Multi Purpose Flight Recorder (MPFR) carried by the S-92A is recovered from the wreckage on the seabed," one source said.
The MPFR, or 'black box', will allow AAIU officials to recreate digital details of the last moments of Rescue 116 including its airspeed, altitude, engine power outputs and systems status. Meanwhile, search teams looking for the three crewmen have successfully mapped out a section of water where they believe the aircraft's black box recorder lies.
But despite a 10-hour operation preparing the 100m by 100m area off Blacksod for a dive and underwater robot operation, large swells expected today could hamper progress.
The operation will be led by Commissioner of Irish Lights (CIL) vessel Granuaile.
The vessel is designed to operate in difficult sea conditions and is also equipped with a heavy-lift crane capable of handling 20 tonnes.
The S-92A is just over half the maximum lift weight of the Granuaile's crane at 12 tonnes.
Granuaile is also equipped with a Remotely Operated Vehicle submersible which, given the difficult and dangerous conditions, will initially be used instead of divers. Irish Coast Guard official Declan Geoghegan said they hoped to make progress over the next 72 hours.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny, who attended Capt Fitzpatrick's funeral on Saturday, will today visit volunteers and families.
Wreckage from Rescue 116 is brought back to Blacksod Pier. Photo Steve Humphreys