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Police helicopter flights cut after Clutha tragedy

FLYING hours for Scotland's only police helicopter have been slashed by almost one-third since the Clutha helicopter disaster.

The new EC135 aircraft, which replaced the one destroyed in the fatal crash in Glasgow city centre last year, has shaved an hour off average daily flying time since it became operational on December 6, a week after the tragedy.

The new helicopter has spent an average of two hours and 23 minutes per day in the air, compared to three hours and 22 minutes per day for the previous Police Scotland machine.

The previous aircraft was wrecked after it plunged into the roof of the Clutha Vaults pub on November 29 last year as it returned from a routine callout.

The pilot and both police constables on board were killed, along with seven people inside the music venue who were struck by debris as the roof collapsed.

The 30 per cent cut in flying hours since the crash brings the helicopter closer into line with the pattern seen prior to the creation of the single police force, when the helicopter was operated by Strathclyde police but occasionally deployed to respond to incidents in other force areas. On the night of the crash it was returning from a "non-urgent task" in Dalkeith in Midlothian.

According to figures released under freedom of information legislation, between 2008 and the creation of Police Scotland on April 1 last year the police helicopter spent 5528 hours and 33 minutes in the air - an average of two hours and 53 minutes per day. After the creation of Police Scotland, the helicopter flew almost an extra half hour every day. It accumulated a total of 818 hours and 39 minutes flying time - equivalent to three hours and 22 minutes per day - in the eight months until the Clutha crash, an increase of 17%.

Since then, between December 6 and May 12 this year the replacement model has cut its average daily flying time by 29% to two hours and 23 minutes. The aircraft spent a total of 375 hours and 25 minutes in the air.

Air accident investigators have not uncovered any evidence to indicate that increased flying hours could have played a part in the crash and Police Scotland insists the current reduction in operations is nothing more than a coincidence.

Chief Superintendent Elaine Ferguson of Police Scotland's operational support division said: "A combination of factors determined the total amount of flying time for the service helicopter.

"These include weather conditions which restrict flying, the maintenance regime for the aircraft and the ebb and flow of operational demand.

"When comparing the two different time-spans, the first period saw number of large-scale events such as T in the Park, The Open and other concerts and processions which did not take place in the second period. Police Scotland has not made any conscious decision to reduce flying time."

There are 17 pilots employed by Bond Air Services who work on a shift basis on callouts for both Police Scotland and the Scottish Air Ambulance Service, which operates two helicopters.

Bond is also responsible for maintaining the aircraft on behalf of the emergency services.

The maintenance schedule is linked to flying hours, meaning any increase in flying hours would automatically increase the frequency at which checks were required.

Bond spokesman John Fyall said: "Safety is inherent in everything we do. We maintain the highest possible safety standards in all our operations, irrespective of how many sorties our aircraft fly each day."

The cause of last year's crash remains a mystery. The most recent report by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch (AAIB), published in February, said both the helicopter's engines "flamed out" as a result of fuel starvation seconds before it came down.

There was still 76kg of fuel in the main tank at the time, but this appeared not to be reaching the engines because vital fuel-flow switches were turned off. How that situation came about is now the focus of the AAIB's probe.

Investigators are also trying to determine why pilot Captain David Traill did not issue a mayday call or carry out an emergency landing.

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