By SHAUN MILNE, PAUL THORNTON & CARA SULIEMAN
FEARS are growing tonight that 16-people have been killed after a Super Puma helicopter crashed into the North Sea just 18-miles north-east off Peterhead.
A major air and sea rescue operation was launched just before 2pm with early reports suggesting eight bodies had been recovered just two hours later.
Hopes were fading that anyone would be rescued alive. Two life-rafts were spotted overturned in the water but conditions for the search were said to be good.
Twelve vessels steamed to the scene along with three Sea King rescue choppers, another helicopter owned by operators Bond, two lifeboats from Fraserburgh and Peterhead all co-ordinated by a Nimrod marine patrol craft high above.
It was thought the downed aircraft- one of dozens of shuttle flights operated every day – had been returning to Aberdeen shore from a BP oil platform in the Etap when it inexplicably went down.
There was no early suggestion as to the cause.
The closest vessel to the scene was understood to be the supply vessel ‘Normand Aurora’ which launched its fast rescue craft to the scene from a distance of some two miles away. It is thought its crew may have recovered the first bodies. The chopper belonged to operators Bond.
A spokesman for the Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “Multiple UK SAR (Search and Rescue) assets are involved.
“It appears a Bond helicopter crashed in the North Sea, 30 kilometres east of Crimond, between Fraserburgh and Peterhead.
“Two RAF rescue helicopters have been scrambled to the scene and a Nimrod aircraft has been diverted to the area.
“Aberdeen Coastguard has sent out a mayday in the area and a number of vessels in the area have responded.
“A supply vessel, the Norman Aurora, has also launched its fast rescue craft.”
Fred Caygill, from HM Coastguard, said: “We monitor the maritime search and rescue frequencies so our initial mayday came from a vessel which reported the incident.”
The Super Puma aircraft is operated by Bond Offshore Helicopters Ltd and is the second craft to go down within two months.
Eighteen people were rescued from the North Sea on February 18 after a helicopter carrying offshore workers to a BP platform was forced to ditch into the water.
On that occasion a Super Puma – believed to be a different model – was travelling to an installation 150 miles east of Aberdeen when it went down.
The pilot was forced to ditch just 1,600ft from the ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) platform, operated by BP.
Personnel on board the rig saw the aircraft plunge into the sea and alerted coastguards in Aberdeen who co-ordinated the rescue effort.
A huge sea and air rescue operation was launched and the 16 passengers and two pilots were all rescued from the crash.
BP suspended the use of Super Puma helicopters from Bond for North Sea flights the day after the crash.
An investigation into the crash later found the helicopter encountered a thick bank of fog around the oil production platform where it was trying to land.
The Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB) later said that a warning system aboard the Super Puma – designed to alert the crew that it was close to crashing into the ground – had displayed a malfunction.
The worst civilian helicopter crash in Britain killed 45 people in November 1986, when a Chinook helicopter crashed while ferrying oil workers to and from oil platforms in the North Sea near south Shetland.
Last night Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond said: “The whole nation expresses its condolences for those who have been tragically killed in this disaster.”