All 16 people on board a helicopter were feared dead after it crashed on Wednesday afternoon about 40 miles north-east of Aberdeen while returning from BP’s Miller field.

Police said eight bodies had been recovered but the remaining eight people were unaccounted for. Two life rafts were spotted in the water, but both were overturned.

The deaths will cast a shadow over the North Sea industry, which has been struggling to cope with rapidly depleting fields, oil price volatility, high operational costs and a scarcity of bank finance for development.

The Super Puma, operated by Bond Offshore Helicopters, was carrying 14 oil workers and two crew when it went down just before 2pm. All would have been wearing survival suits. Two Royal Air Force helicopters and a Nimrod marine patrol aircraft assisted the search and were joined by 11 other ships and lifeboats.

Excellent weather points to mechanical failure as the possible cause of the crash. The crew had enough time to put in a Mayday call to Aberdeen Coastguard, suggesting there was no sudden catastrophic failure of the aircraft.

However, the fact that the pilots were unable to prevent the helicopter from going into the sea means they were in serious difficulties.

The crash comes less than two months after another Bond helicopter – a different model of Super Puma – crashed into the North Sea 125 miles east of Aberdeen. On that occasion all 18 on board were rescued.

Chris Allen, health, safety, social and environment director of Oil & Gas UK, the trade body that regulates the industry, said: “This is a dark day for our industry.”

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