Fifty years since platform tragedy

IT was a calm morning in Bass Strait by all reports, and excitement was in the air as 26 journalists and public relations personnel prepared to tour Esso’s new Barracouta oil and gas platform.

By 12.20pm, the scene on the platform 36 miles east of Sale resembled a bloody battlefield.

Fifty years ago on Thursday, March 22, 1968, two journalists and a public relations officer were killed, while four others lay injured when a Bell 204B helicopter crash landed on the gas platform.

The men were part of a contingent of 26 from Sydney, Melbourne and Gippsland, visiting the platform for a photographic shoot.

Sun reporter Peter Bourke, Sydney Daily Telegraph’s Hugh Curnow and Esso public relations manager Noel Buckley were killed, and Sale photographer Roy (Ron) Griffiths, on assignment for the Gippsland Times, was seriously injured when he was struck by a piece of spinning rotor blade flying through the crowd.

The group, which had flown from West Sale Aerodrome to the platform that morning, had been waiting for the returning helicopter to take it back to base for lunch.

The official report into the crash found the helicopter had made a normal approach, which “terminated in the hover position with the heels of the undercarriage pontoons about four feet above the helipad surface”.

Within seconds, the pilot lost control of the helicopter after it made contact with the helipad on the pontoons, and slid onto the surface at an angle.

Sale pilot Alan ‘Snoopy’ Adams, who also flew for the company which owned the helicopter, Helicopter Utilities, remembers the accident and the impact it had on the close-knit Sale township.

“Well, of course most of the people were from out of town, but Ron Griffiths was a well known Sale photographer who was married and had a daughter, and he was injured pretty badly,” he said.

“He did come back to work as a photographer, but it took him a while to recuperate.”

Alan still flies, but in a more relaxed fashion these days taking passengers on Tiger Moth joyrides out of Rosedale.

He said the crash prompted significant changes in landing procedures, with passengers no longer able to wait on helipads after that day.

“It was difficult for the pilot, who was an experienced ex-RAAF fighter pilot, because in those days the hydraulic controls would not have allowed him to feel the vibrations from the pedals,” he said.

“There would have been no warning, and it happened so quickly.”

One of the benefits of having a media contingent on the platform was that investigators had access to vision of the accident, frame by frame.

“I know that they were able to see the accident unfold once they viewed the frames from the cameramen on the platform.”

The Barracouta platform was jointly owned and controlled by Esso Exploration and Production Australia, and Haematite Petroleum.

Investigations found the accident was caused by a tiny thrust washer left off during assembly of the tail rotor.

The washer was subsequently found on the workshop floor during investigations.

A spokesman for Esso said the company’s thoughts were with the family and colleagues of those involved in the tragic event half-acentury on.

“Following the charter flight accident, Esso introduced its own helicopter division and has owned and operated its offshore fleet ever since,” he said last week.

“Last year, Esso introduced four state-of-the-art Leonardo AW139 helicopters, and this investment illustrates our continued commitment to safe and responsible operations in the Gippsland region.”