The Airbus Helicopters H225 that crashed off the South Korean coast late last Thursday night had recently been returned to service after completing a 1,000-hour heavy inspection.
None of the seven occupants aboard survived when the H225, operated by the country’s 119 rescue service, crashed after lifting off with an injured fisherman from the islet of Dokdo, located in the East Sea 117 nautical miles off the South Korean coast. VFR, but moonless, conditions and light winds were reported at the time. The accident helicopter entered service in 2016 and is one of two operated by 119. It has two more H225s on order from Airbus and also operates a pair of smaller Airbus AS365 N2s. The two-pilot flight crew was described by multiple sources as highly experienced.
Witnesses to the accident said the helicopter crashed within two to three minutes of departing the helipad at approximately 11:30 p.m. local time and that it was flying erratically at a low altitude. The wreckage was located Friday afternoon on the seabed at a depth of 230 feet and pulled to the surface on Sunday. Photos published this morning by the Yonhap news agency show the helicopter’s rotorhub attached to the main wreckage, but substantial cabin damage. The cockpit and tailboom are not attached.
On Friday South Korean President Moon Jae-in ordered safety inspections of all H225s in the country. It was not immediately clear if the order also applied to the country’s large fleet of more than 90 KAI KUH-1 Surions, a locally-produced variant of the Airbus AS332 L2 used by South Korean defense and police forces.
The H225 and the AS322 L2 are both members of the Airbus Super Puma family and share a variety of common components. Past safety grounding orders regarding the H225, most notably in the wake of the fatal crash of one near Turoy, Norway, in 2016, also have been applied to the AS322 L2. In the Turoy crash, a fracture in one of the main gearbox’s second-stage planet gears caused the rotorhub and the main rotors to depart the aircraft in flight. The related grounding was lifted after Airbus re-sourced and replaced the problem part and devised a heightened replacement and inspection regime.
The Turoy crash substantially undermined market confidence in the H225, with at least one North Sea offshore oil workers union, Unite, gathering 10,000 signatures in support of permanently grounding the helicopter. A 2017 survey conducted by Airbus found that 62 percent of respondents would not fly on it. In October of that year, Guillaume Faury, then CEO of Airbus Helicopters (now CEO of Airbus), told reporters, “It takes time to restore trust after these accidents,” after he stepped off an H225 publicity flight in London. Behind the scenes, Airbus negotiated multimillion-dollar settlements with H225 operators and leasing companies who were adversely impacted by the groundings, loss of customer confidence in the helicopter, and a dramatic plunge in the market value of their H225s. Altogether, H225 operators took hundreds of millions of dollars in H225-related write downs.
Earlier this year, prospects for the H225 appeared to be improving, with a limited number of used models moving again on what had been a moribund market for the helicopter. In September, Airbus celebrated the delivery of its 1,000th Super Puma. However, fresh safety concerns about the H225 re-emerged just last month when EASA issued an emergency airworthiness directive requiring the replacement of certain module bevel gears in the helicopter’s Safran Makila 2A and 2A1 turboshaft engines (EASA AD #2019-0247-E) following a reported in-flight engine shutdown.