RAF Valley helicopter technical issues 'delayed ship rescue'
Technical problems with rescue helicopters at RAF Valley on Anglesey delayed the rescue of a stricken ship's crew, an accident report has said.
An RAF helicopter from Yorkshire instead battled snowstorms to reach the MV Carrier off Conwy, in April 2012.
The ship's Polish master did not understand some UK maritime weather forecast terms, the marine accident investigation also found.
Investigators said it was fortunate the seven crew were rescued unharmed.
The Marine Accident Investigation Branch (MAIB) issued a number of recommendations after the incident off Llanddulas, acknowledging that all four helicopters being out of action at RAF Valley, where the Duke of Cambridge is stationed, was extremely unusual, although the RAF says only two of the four are equipped for search and rescue.
The Antigua and Barbuda-registered vessel had been carrying stone when it ran aground at night, close to the main A55 coast road.
Two lifeboats, a Royal Navy helicopter from Prestwick, South Ayrshire and an RAF helicopter from Leconfield in East Yorkshire were involved in the rescue in heavy seas.
The report found the ship's master's unfamiliarity with UK maritime weather forecast terminology led to a delay in his departure from the Raynes quarry jetty in Llanddulas.
This in turn meant wind speeds had risen dramatically while the ship was moored at the jetty.
When it tried to move away from the jetty it was caught and carried onto the nearby shore.
The accident report concluded:
- RAF staff reported it was extremely unusual for all four of the RAF Valley helicopters to be unserviceable with such substantial technical faults.
- The MV Carrier's master, one of seven Polish nationals on board, was not sure of the meaning of some of the words used in UK maritime weather forecasts.
- Jetty staff allowed the ship to continue loading despite the bad weather conditions.
- None of the staff at the jetty had significant maritime experience.
- "It is concerning that there may be other harbours like Raynes Jetty around the UK coast whose operators consider themselves outside the normal scope of port operations".
The MAIB said the rescue was delayed primarily because of the technical problems with all four helicopters at RAF Valley, while snowstorms stopped a helicopter from RAF Leconfield launching immediately.
The report added the Leconfield crew was "obliged to make an extremely hazardous flight in very poor conditions across the width of the country".
It said the performance of all the helicopter crews was "extremely commendable".
"However, the risks they faced during the rescue were exacerbated by the lack of more locally-available search and rescue (SAR) helicopters," it said.
"It was extremely fortunate the situation on board Carrier remained stable for long enough to enable all the crew to be rescued without injury."
MAIB chief inspector, Steve Clinch, said the issues at RAF Valley were extremely unusual.
"It was a series of unfortunate accidents which compounded to make it a difficult night for the rescue services," he told BBC Radio Wales.
"It was unusual, and just one of those things that happens from time to time.
"The aircraft are beginning to get to the end of their useful life, and there is a new contract that has been fixed by the Department of Transport for search and rescue services which will come on stream in 2015."
Later the ship was found to be "a total constructive loss" and was broken up on site.
Recommendations include the port marine safety code being applied to all types of harbour.
The Maritime and Coastguard Agency has also been asked to work with the Met Office to ensure the terminology used in weather broadcasts are "clearly understood by mariners and other users of the service".
Shore-based staff also needed a "good understanding of maritime weather forecasting" the report added.
An RAF spokesman said while there were four helicopters at Valley only two are equipped for search and rescue. The others are for training and would not have been deployed had they been serviceable.
The spokesman added that they operate a system of overlapping cover and during this incident target response times were met.