Editorial: Eye of the Storm
July 14, 2016 By Matt Nicholls
Daunting. Dramatic. Disheartening. Welcome to the beginning of the 2016 operating season, where several significant incidents put the Canadian helicopter industry under the microscope – and the picture wasn’t always positive.
The crash of an Airbus Helicopters H225 operated by CHC Helicopters near Tur<accent>øy, Norway that claimed the lives of 11 passengers and two crew on April 29 was daunting indeed. The particulars in the accident are disturbing: the helicopter’s main rotor head detached from the mast of the aircraft in flight and caused the helicopter to plummet into the sea, killing all on board.
The crash came shortly after the conclusion of the CHC Safety & Quality Summit in Vancouver, a popular annual industry event that brings together delegates from around the globe to discuss ways to enhance safety in the oil and gas market. This year’s event was themed around the concept of enhancing safety in times of economic challenges, and the accident was a cruel reminder that no measure of safety is too much, no matter what the economic realities.
In its investigation of the mishap, the Accident Investigation Board of Norway (AIBN) determined the crash to be one of three things: failure of the epicyclic module, a lift-strut attachment or the main gearbox conical housing. In response to the investigation, Airbus Helicopters stepped up efforts to help investigative teams, but also to work to support international customers. It was a measured response yes, but one that needs to continue in the future for safe operations of a helicopter platform with a history of gearbox issues and problems.
Early season drama came in the form of the Fort McMurray fire that dominated headlines for two months in May and June. The numbers are staggering: more than 2,500 homes and buildings destroyed; some 1.5 million acres burned; $615 million earmarked to supply firefighting resources/proper evacuation procedures; insurance payouts estimated at roughly $2.6 billion.
Through it all, aerial firefighting teams illustrated just how effective and advanced Canadian aerial firefighting is today. At the height of the fire’s rage in mid-May, more than 45 helicopters and 22 air tankers were involved in the operation – an outstanding number to effectively coordinate and track.
The Fort McMurray blaze was 10 times that of the 2011 Slave Lake fire, which destroyed one third of the town of Slave Lake. This blaze caused $750 million dollars in damage, at the time, the most expensive fire damage in Canadian history. It also resulted in an aviation-death: pilot Jean-Luc Duba was killed when his Bell 212 crashed as he was assisting in fire operations.
There were other harrowing stories, some involving helicopter operators. Paul and Andrea Spring for example – who for years have worked to raise safety standards industry-wide and help others in need with Phoenix Heli-Flight’s Medevac operations – lost their home in the blaze. They, like other aviators, soldiered on as they had from Day 1, staying the course to the end. Drama aside, it’s this resiliency that drives the success of the Canadian helicopter industry in times of strife.
The Transportation Board of Canada’s (TSB) report on the May 2013 crash of an ORNGE S-76A helicopter in Moosonee that claimed the lives of two pilots and two paramedics easily fulfilled the disheartening part of the early season news. As Kathy Fox, TSB chair pointed out in the report, there were a number of alarming organizational, regulatory and oversite deficiencies that led to the accident.
Equally disheartening is the fact that ORNGE – and Transport Canada (TC) – didn’t address procedures and organizational deficiencies that may have helped prevent the crash. (For more, see “A Sad Reality,” pg. 8.) In its report, the TSB noted 14 deficiencies in the regulations, flight rules and pilot readiness and aircraft equipment that need to be adhered to in order to prevent like accidents in the future.
And while both TC and ORNGE have taken significant action to make amends, work still needs to be done. Let’s hope both organizations continue to work to ensure the safe transport of patients in need – processes that aren’t disregarded or blatantly ignored.
As each situation illustrates, the storm can subside and be contained, but only with a calculated, collective effort.