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Lead, Follow or Move Along

I don’t usually write about any one topic that is biased toward one operator or one segment of the industry but I feel compelled to take some space to throw a dart at the regulators who set, monitor and shift the goalposts against which we work in the field.


January 15, 2014
By Walter Heneghan

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I don’t usually write about any one topic that is biased toward one operator or one segment of the industry but I feel compelled to take some space to throw a dart at the regulators who set, monitor and shift the goalposts against which we work in the field. One of the more frustrating aspects of being part of the helicopter industry is dealing with NAV CANADA, Transport Canada (TC) and their brethren. Most operators understand the role of the regulator; they accept that certain limitations need to be in place to ensure safety. No issue here . . . maybe.

NAV CANADA’s published vision – [to] “facilitate the safe movement of aircraft efficiently and cost-effectively through the provision of air navigation services on a long-term sustainable basis” marries nicely with TC’s published aims to be “…responsible for advancing the safety of all aspects of civil aviation in Canada.” Great stuff. Now, when it comes to the practical execution of policy to meet these aims, sometimes these agencies fall short. A great example happened this summer to several Western Canadian-based operators tasked with providing support to the oil and gas industry.

With activity ratcheted up in the Western Canada pipeline corridor, these operators formed a working group to discuss increased risks and potential mitigation strategies. This was a mature, proactive step that put aside competitive interests to develop protocols, SOPs, and communications strategies to assure safety was at a high level. They met among themselves and with their clients to try to address their clients’ concerns with safety in the air corridor surrounding their projects. Perfect.

One of the solutions put on the table was to approach NAV CANADA and have it issue a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) that addressed the increased activity in the corridor, that set communications procedures for traffic in the area and that detailed a protocol for both transit and local operations. This was a great idea – a cooperative step to enhance safety for the helicopter pilots, a strong mitigation strategy that addressed the concerns of the client base and a caution to transiting pilots (and especially the light, fixed-wing community), about the increased air traffic. The result? Crickets. There was no buy-in from the regulators and just bureaucratic intransigence.

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“Can’t do it.” “Doesn’t meet the criteria.” “Not our file.” The response was underwhelming and, quite frankly, unbelievable. Here we have a coalition of the willing stymied by the government agencies of Laurel and Hardy. Does not a broad reaching NOTAM detailing increased aviation activity aimed at increasing hazard awareness and aviation safety meet the criteria specified in the Canadian NOTAM Procedures Manual? Therein is noted that “The basic purpose of NOTAM is the distribution of information that may affect safety and operations in advance of the event to which it relates…”  But it also details specific criteria for non-aviation activities such as blasting; if blasting can be NOTAMed, why can’t pipeline construction activity?

This summer, dozens of helicopters operated in the Grande Prairie-Terrace corridor flying thousands of passengers, often at low levels, in challenging terrain and variable weather conditions. Any leg up that the “system” can provide our pilots improves safety. Period. The failure of both TC and NAV CANADA to adequately action a safety-related and reasonable request by a coalition of air operators only serves to reinforce the overwhelming impression out in “the real world” that Transport is broken.

So, I say, it is time. It is time for TC, NAV CANADA and all the other regulatory bodies to lead, follow or get out of the way so that the helicopter industry can get on with the business of providing support to Canadian industry.

Our industry, our companies, are business enablers. Economic enablers. GDP enablers. We readily accept that we work within a legislative framework with regulatory oversight. And most of the operators have little quarrel with that.

However, the inability of the regulators to move with sufficient diligence, sufficient energy and sufficient haste to support the helicopter industry is unacceptable. Whether one is concerned with an answer from the National office or a local interpretation of a regulation, the regulator must do better. When a coalition of aircraft operators, concerned with improving safety and mitigating risk, calls, for safety’s sake – answer the phone.


Walter Heneghan is the VP of Safety and Quality at Canadian Helicopters. A passionate advocate for aviation safety and sound risk management, the veteran pilot presents his regular column for Helicopters magazine.


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