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Shell Grounds Fleet of Helicopters Amid Probe

THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

In an unusual move prompted by concerns about the safety of a widely-used Sikorsky helicopter model, Royal Dutch Shell PLC’s U.S. unit has temporarily grounded a fleet of choppers and instead is relying on boats to take most workers to and from its oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico.

The decision to suspend using a fleet of at least 12 Sikorsky S-76C helicopters was prompted by one that crashed on Jan. 4 in the region, killing eight of the nine people aboard and raising questions about the safety of the popular helicopter. Operated by Shell subcontractor PHI Inc, of Metairie, LA., the S-76 fleet reserved for Shell hasn’t been used by the oil company since the crash, according to a Shell spokesman.

The Jan. 4 accident continues to stump federal and industry investigators, according to people familiar with the matter. Both engines shut down suddenly in good weather, they said, with no mayday call from the pilots and no obvious clues since then about the cause. Investigators suspect that electrical and steering systems also may have stopped working at the same time.

Manufactured by a unit of United Technologies Corp., the S-76 has a good safety record and is a workhorse for many offshore-oil operations, emergency medical transport firms and other commercial services in the U.S. and overseas. About 700 are used worldwide, and the manufacturer said there have been three fatal crashes since 2004. A Sikorsky spokesman declined to comment on the investigation, but described Shell’s actions as a local “precautionary safety stand down.”

The latest crash occurred in a swamp a few minutes after takeoff from Amelia, La. Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board recovered the flight-date recorder and digital engine-control units. But nearly a month after the accident, investigators are still mulling a number of theories, ranging from potential fuel problems to a possible bird strike that might have pushed a section of the windshield into the cockpit, slamming the throttles back to idle, according to people familiar with the matter.

In light of the uncertainty, Shell’s U.S. unit decided to “stand down” the fleet and arrange for “interim personnel transportation” via boats for most of its 1,500 contractors and employees in the Gulf, according to spokesman. They won’t resume flying until the company feels “comfortable” about the results of the investigation, the spokesman said. It isn’t clear how long that will take. According to the Shell spokesman, other PHI customers continue to fly on S-76 models in the Gulf.

Oil industry officials and air safety experts said Shell’s decision is one of the rare instances when a major user or operator has temporarily halted flights of such a large number of the popular, 12-person choppers. The Sikorsky spokesman said Shell continues to use the models in other parts of the world.

A spokesman for PHI declined to take questions. The safety board also declined to comment.

The investigation has attracted significant industry attention partly due to the well-known companies involved, as well as the mysterious nature of the accident.

Write to Andy Pasztor at [email protected]

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