BARENTSBURG CRASH UPDATE: Large-scale search ending Thursday; bad weather reportedly caused helicopter to suffer icing and electrical failure


A large-scale search for the seven bodies missing after a helicopter crashed into the sea near Barentsburg is scheduled to end Thursday, two weeks after the crash occurred, according to The Governor of Svalbard.

The decision means officials are also giving up hope of finding the memory device from the flight data recorder, but an investigator told a Russian newspaper the crash was “provoked” by poor weather that caused icing and electrical failure. 

A total of ​​35 square kilometers of seabed has been “thoroughly scanned” by remote-operated vessels and more than 200 kilometers in multiple directions from the crash site have been searched, the governor’s office announced Wednesday in a prepared statement.

“We are pulling out the large resources, but will continue to monitor the search area with the governor’s own resources in the future,” Gov. Kjerstin Askholt said.

“We have consulted with police experts in searching for the dead, and experts in meteorology and ocean currents, including UNIS. The feedback is that we have searched well beyond what is common.”

Askholt and other officials involved in the recover efforts are scheduled to attend a memorial for the victims Wednesday night at the church in Barentsburg’s cultural center.

The decision means the governor’s Polarsyssel service vessel, Norwegian Guard Guard’s Barentshav and the specially equipped Maersk Forza that raised the helicopter from the seabed will depart the search area. A number of other vessels used during the search have already departed. There will also be no further searches along the coastline on foot and using helicopters.

The decision was discussed with Russian recovery workers who have been assisting in the operation, the governor’s statement noted.

The cockpit voice recorder and GPS from the helicopter were recovered, but the data recorder in the tail of the helicopter – which broke off from the main fuselage during the crash – was damaged and the memory unit could not be recovered. The voice recorder, which is in “satisfactory condition,” is now being analyzed at a lab in Moscow by Russia’s Interstate Aviation Committee, according to a statement by the committee.

The Russian Mi-8 helicopter crashed Oct. 26 about two kilometers northeast of the Barentsburg heliport. It was carrying five Russian crew members and three Russian scientific researchers, the latter of whom were a late addition to the round-trip flight to Pyramiden because deteriorating weather prevented them from making a scheduled boat trip.

Interfax on Wednesday, quoting “an unnamed source on the disaster investigation team,” stated the crash was “provoked by difficult weather conditions.”

“The pilots encountered a strong charge of heavy snow, external nodes were icing and the avionics failed,” the investigator told the news agency.

Previous reports have cited a “piloting error” as a preliminary cause of the accident.

Only one of the bodies – a research – has been recovered after being found on the seabed about 130 meters from the wreckage. Recovery officials have tried simulating tidal and other conditions using humanistic dolls and other equipment to simulate where the other bodies may have been carried without success.

Investigators also note 24 of the 25 lifejackets were aboard the helicopter and, unlike some models that inflate automatically upon hitting water, those in the Mi-8 required the wearer to inflate it.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Arkady Dvorkovich on Tuesday ordered government agencies to arrange financial payments to the families of the victims, as well as educational and other assistance for the children of those killed.

“In addition, the departments were instructed to work out and submit proposals for the acquisition of a new helicopter, which is necessary for carrying out activities in the Svalbard archipelago,” Dvorkovich said in a prepared statement.