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Helicopter inquiry will spur safety changes

Nov. 17, 2010, St. John's - The first phase of an inquiry into the transportation of offshore oil workers will be delivered in St. John's, Nfld. today.


November 17, 2010
By CTV News

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The Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry was commissioned in the wake of a crash that killed 17 of 18 people aboard Cougar Helicopters Flight 491 in March, 2009.

The Sikorsky S-92 helicopter was headed to the White Rose and Hibernia oilfields east of St. John's when the pilots noticed a loss of oil pressure in the aircraft's main gearbox. They never made it back to land, slamming into the ocean nearly 60 kilometres off Newfoundland's east coast.

When it established the inquiry last year, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board asked retired Newfoundland Supreme Court justice Robert Wells to finds ways to make travel safer for people working at oil sites more than 300 kilometres offshore.

About 700 people work offshore at any given time.

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In February, commissioner Wells pre-empted his first official report with calls for immediate safety improvements.

The federal-provincial offshore regulator responded by restricting nighttime flights and demanding energy companies keep a fully-equipped search and rescue helicopter on standby whenever offshore workers are being transported.

In his interim recommendations, Wells said rescue choppers must have auto-hover capability and a forward-looking infrared device to help find and retrieve survivors.

Unlike military Cormorant helicopters, Cougar's aircraft have lacked such equipment in the past.

On the day Flight 491 crashed, sole survivor Robert Decker waited 75 minutes in the frigid North Atlantic while a Cougar chopper was equipped with a rescue winch before it could rush to his rescue.

Military choppers based in Gander, central Newfoundland were two hours away, training in Nova Scotia that day.

Wells will submit the first phase of his report to the CNLOPB in St. John's Wednesday, focusing on the safety regime for offshore workers.

Key areas Wells is expected to focus his recommendations on include the role offshore companies should play in ensuring the safety of independent helicopter operators; the search-and-rescue obligations of transportation companies; and the role of legislators in enforcing safety regulations.

The CNLOPB, which oversees the N.L. offshore oil industry, intends to review the report for 30 days before commenting.

In the second phase of his report, Wells will include his examination of the Transportation Safety Board investigation into the actual cause of the crash.

A $27-million lawsuit has been filed against the helicopter's manufacturer, Sikorsky Aircraft Corp., and others alleging breach of duty, gross negligence, negligent misrepresentation, recklessness and willful misconduct.

None of the allegations have been proven in court.


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