BARENTSBURG CRASH UPDATE (7:30 P.M. FRIDAY): Raising of helicopter delayed again; ‘piloting error’ may have caused crash; legality of flight questioned


The raising of a helicopter that crashed into the sea last week near Barentsburg has been delayed until at least late Friday night or Saturday in order to ensure no bodies are in the immediate vicinity of the crash site, according to The Governor of Svalbard.

Meanwhile, a lifejacket was found Friday about 90 meters from the wreckage, a “piloting error” was cited as the preliminary cause of the crash and questions were raised about whether the flight carrying scientific researchers was legally authorized.

Norwegian and Russian emergency workers are working to resolve technical issues related to raising the helicopter intact from the crash site 209 meters below the surface, Russia’s Ministry of Emergency Situations reported Friday afternoon. Also, while Russian media reports stated Thursday no bodies were found in the cabin, workers are verifying the aircraft is unoccupied and no other bodies are in areas that will be affected by the lifting operation.

“A specialist from the Russian helicopter manufacturer will be there to make recommendations for the lift, to ensure that the wreckage is not damaged,” the Norwegian Civil Aviation Commission wrote in a prepared statement.

The lifting will be done by the Maersk Forza, a specialized ship brought up from the mainland for the purpose. Officials originally estimated the lifting could begin as early as Wednesday, but preparation and analysis of the area has resulted in delays – with officials emphasizing doing the job properly is more important than doing it quickly.

The helicopter crashed about two kilometers northeast of the Barentsburg heliport last Thursday afternoon. The body of one of the eight people aboard was found Monday about 130 meters from the crash site and a lifejacket – which may or may not be related to the crash – was located Friday about 90 meters from the wreckage.

Witnesses said they heard the helicopter approaching Barentsburg just before the aircraft lost communication with Svalbard Airport without sending a distress signal. The Russia news agency TASS reported Friday that “the preliminary cause of the emergency is being called a piloting error.”

The helicopter was carrying five Russian crew members and three Russian researchers conducting hydrology research in Pyramiden. But Svalbardposten reported Friday that Trust Arktikugol, the Russian state-owned company responsible for management Svalbard’s Russian settlements, may not have been authorized to transport the researchers aboard the helicopter.

A permit issued by Norway’s Civil Aviation Authority to Convers Avia Airline, a subcontractor of Trust Arktikugol, is “explicit that they only have permission for local flights for passengers and goods in connection with Trust Arktikugol’s coal mining operations in Svalbard,” the newspaper reported. “The permit also includes non-commercial flights to Longyearbyen’s airport.”

An aviation authority spokesperson and Svalbard Gov. Kjerstin Askholt told Svalbardposten they cannot say at this time if the flight violated the terms of the permit.