There was no emergency coastguard helicopter available at Sumburgh for 24 hours between last Thursday and Friday, due to crew shortage.
According to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) the search and rescue operations for Shetland were covered by the Inverness-based helicopter.
The MCA stated it was not aware of any wider issues to do with recruitment of suitably trained people working from the Shetland base, which is operated by Bristow Helicopters, but would be discussing last week’s problems with the company.
Fortunately there were no call-outs during the period of Sumburgh’s inactivity, but over the weekend the Shetland-based aircraft was in action on two occasions.
The problems on Thursday/Friday were reputed to be due to pilot shortage, with one on holiday and others recovering after taking part in the Lerwick Up-Helly-A’ festival earlier in the week, according to a source at Sumburgh airport.
The source, who did not wish to be named, said the situation was extremely worrying and it was by no means the first time it happened.
“For 24 hours there were no captains available,” the source stated. “This has happened before and it is just due to good fortune that nothing serious happened during that time.
“They need to make sure that this kind of thing never happens again. We live in an extremely dangerous area, especially with the storms we had last week. If anything had happened which needed the helicopter it could have been catastrophic.”
MCA spokeswoman Heather Skull said: “Search and rescue helicopter operations for Shetland were covered by our Inverness aircraft between Thursday and Friday due to short notice absence amongst the Shetland crew.
“At no time during this period was Shetland left without cover. The MCA for its part will be discussing the matter with Bristow to make sure that the impact of such absences in the future is similarly reduced.”
The MCA was asked if there were any steps being taken to address crewing issues, which perhaps also applied to winchmen or winch operators.
According to people close to the service there is a general problem recruiting sufficient pilots to work in Shetland which means the service is operating at the borderline of viable manning.
Ms Skull replied: “We are not aware of any issues to do with recruitment of suitably trained people working from our Shetland base.
“Search and rescue helicopter operations remain a very attractive profession for pilots and technical crew, particularly in the stunning surroundings offered by Shetland.”
On the questions of whether four pilots must be on station at any time in order to man two helicopters, and how many were employed full-time or called in for duty ad-hoc from other areas, the MCA did not reply.
The MCA did, however, issue figures at Sumburgh between February 2015 and last month.
During the 12-month period there were a total of 142 call-outs.
Broken down they were: February – nine; March – seven; April – 17; May – 10; June – 15; July – 16; August – 18; September – seven; October – 12; November – nine; December – 12; January – 10.
The situation at Sumburgh was further exacerbated due to the so-called “storm Gertrude” on Friday, with the helicopter being delayed for several hours in reaching a sick patient in Yell.
Initially Bristow’s staff were unable to open the hangar doors at the airport. But with winds reaching speeds of 100mph during the peak of the storm the aircraft would have been unable to fly anyway, because of health and safety regulations preventing them from taking off in such harsh conditions.
By 5pm conditions had eased enough for the helicopter to take off and the patient was flown from Yell to hospital in Lerwick.