Mayo helicopter crash: Poor weather hampers search

A panel from the helicopter is brought ashore
Image caption A panel from the helicopter was brought ashore

Poor weather conditions have hampered efforts to find the black box from the Irish coastguard helicopter that crashed into the sea off County Mayo.

Rescue teams picked up a signal from the Rescue 116 helicopter near Blackrock Lighthouse on Wednesday.

They are searching for three crewmen still missing after the helicopter crashed at about 01:00 on Tuesday.

A fourth crew member, Captain Dara Fitzpatrick died in hospital after she was recovered from the sea on Tuesday.

The search for chief pilot Mark Duffy and winchmen Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith continues.

Image caption The helicopter pad at Blacksod lighthouse where the helicopters refuelled
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Media captionDara Fitzpatrick's family say they, at least, have a body to mourn

Irish chief air accident investigator Jurgen Whyte described the location of a signal as "hugely significant" and said he hoped the recorder was in or near the helicopter wreckage.

"To get the signal is the big thing," he told Irish broadcaster RTÉ.

"We are now in what would be described as a football pitch and somewhere within that football pitch there is a very small tweeting, chirping sound and as we move around that field we hope to get closer and closer to it.

"The likelihood is that the three missing persons may be within that area as well - so our focus is still on recovering the three crew members and we believe that by finding the recorder that will bring us closer to that goal."

Accident investigators from the UK have joined the search for the black box with specialised equipment to assist the operation.

The Irish Navy, RNLI, police divers and fishing boats are searching the coast off Mayo.

Captain Robert McCabe, Director of Operations and Navigation with the Commissioners of Irish Lights, said all the lighthouses in the area were in "full working order" on the morning of the incident.

Image copyright RTÉ
Image caption It is expected that the search will concentrate on an area close to Blackrock lighthouse - three crew members are still missing

Capt McCabe added that aids to navigation at Blackrock Lighthouse were functioning properly at the time of the crash.

The Irish coastguard asked the Irish Defence Forces to provide top cover for the fatal rescue mission at 22:06 on Monday, but its fixed-wing aircraft were not available, so Rescue 116 was deployed instead.

The Irish Defence Forces added that at 01:45 on Tuesday, the Irish Air Corps logged an emergency request from the Irish coastguard "to provide an aircraft to conduct a search for a missing helicopter, Rescue 116".

"The Air Corps initiated its recall plan and as a result was able to offer a Casa CN235 maritime patrol aircraft.

That plane took off from Casement Aerodrome south of Dublin shortly before 04:30

At the scene: BBC News NI's Julian Fowler

Rescue teams are using sophisticated underwater equipment which picks up a faint chirp from the locator beacon on the flight recorder.

It's in water about 40m deep and only about 50 or 60m from Blackrock which is a tall, rocky island topped by a lighthouse about 10 miles off the Mayo coast.

The next stage is to pinpoint its exact location and then attempt to recover the device either by using an underwater robot or dive teams.

There are two black boxes, one which records the engine and flight data and the other which captures the voice and radio communications and investigators hope they'll be able to retrieve the data to find out what happened in the final moments of the flight.

The water conditions are described as difficult, there are very strong currents and the weather today could impede the search with large swells forecast

The Irish naval ship, LÉ Eithne, is helping to co-ordinate the ongoing search and rescue operation.

On Wednesday, civil defence volunteers carried out searches along the shore.

Irish Transport Minister Shane Ross visited Blacksod in County Mayo and spoke to relatives of the crew.

"It's a very, very devastating experience for them as can be expected," he said.

Image caption Flags fly at half mast

The Dublin-based helicopter crew had been assisting colleagues from Sligo in a rescue operation on a UK fishing vessel about 150km (95 miles) west of Eagle Island.

Image copyright RTÉ
Image caption Captain Dara Fitzpatrick was the most senior pilot with CHC which runs the contract to provide search and rescue services in the Republic of Ireland

They lost contact at about 01:00 local time on Tuesday on a refuelling journey to Blacksod.

Capt Fitzpatrick was the mother of a young son and the most senior pilot with CHC which runs the contract to provide search and rescue services in the Republic of Ireland.

Irish coastguard helicopters

  • Five Sikorsky search-and-rescue helicopters deployed at bases in Dublin, Waterford, Shannon and Sligo
  • Respond to emergencies at sea, inland waterways, offshore islands and mountains across island of Ireland
  • Also used during flooding, major inland emergencies, intra-hospital transfers and aerial surveillance
  • Handle about 2,500 marine emergencies each year

R116 from Dublin was sent to help the Sligo aircraft communicate with the base at Malin, as the fishing boat was too far out for the first helicopter to stay within communication range.

The Sligo crew picked up the fisherman, who had a serious hand injury, and transferred him to hospital.

Image caption The helicopter pad at Blacksod lighthouse where the helicopters refuelled

Shortly afterwards, communication was lost with the Dublin-based aircraft.

Conditions were described as good when the helicopter lost contact on its final approach to Blacksod refuelling depot.

It is the second fatal accident involving Irish Coastguard crew members over the past six months.

In September 2016, volunteer Coastguard Caitriona Lucas died while assisting in a rescue operation off the County Clare coast.

The mother-of-two was one of three crew members on board a rigid inflatable boat which flipped over during a search for a man near cliffs at Kilkee.

Irish coastguard helicopters have been used for a number of operations in Northern Ireland.

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