Helicopters Magazine

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Offshore chopper risks

October 21, 2009  By Sue Bailey | The Canadian Press

Oct. 21, 2009, St. John's, N.L. – The retired judge heading an inquiry into offshore helicopter safety wanted to know all he could about the Cougar chopper that ditched into the Atlantic last March, killing 17 of 18 people aboard.

Oct. 21, 2009, St. John's, N.L. – The retired judge heading an inquiry into offshore helicopter safety wanted to know all he could about the Cougar chopper that ditched into the Atlantic last March, killing 17 of 18 people aboard.

Robert Wells, 76, underwent simulated crash training to qualify for flight to the Hibernia oil platform east of St. John's _ on the very Sikorsky S-92A model that failed that devastating day.

It helped him prepare for more than six weeks of hearings that start Monday to assess whether offshore helicopter transport risks are as low as is ''practicable.''

What shocked Wells was how fast a chopper fills with water when it plunges into the sea.


''When the helicopter hits the water and turns over, it's almost instantaneously full of water,'' he said in an interview. ''That
surprised me.''

Wells, wearing a bulky survival suit, was trained to count to 10 before knocking the seat-side window out with his fist.

"You had to learn how to breathe with an apparatus underwater," he said. ''Then as soon as you knock out the window, you put your hand on the window sill _ you're upside down and in the water completely _ and of course you have to keep your head and pull yourself out through the window and float up to the surface.''

Of the 18 souls aboard doomed Cougar Flight 491 last March 12, Robert Decker was the lone survivor. He escaped through a window and was plucked from the ocean in critical condition. He was released from hospital after several days in intensive care.

"There was no time for panic. There were no words spoken. There was no time for suffering,'' he later said in his only public statement.

Wells will hear from a long list of witnesses but it has not been confirmed if Decker will be on it. It includes families of workers killed in the crash, transport officials, offshore oil regulators and industry representatives. The inquiry will not deal with the cause of the crash, which is still under investigation by the Transportation Safety Board.

It has already announced that titanium mounting studs which attach an oil filter bowl to the main gearbox broke during flight. The two chopper pilots had reported a problem with the main gearbox oil pressure.

In the first phase of the inquiry, Wells is to make non-binding recommendations by March 31 to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board. The independent joint federal-provincial agency regulates offshore oil and gas activity.

The second phase allows the commissioner to make recommendations on the Transportation Safety Board's final report.

Wells, a former justice of the Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador, will specifically investigate: safety plan requirements for helicopter operators and the extent to which they're maintained; the contractual and legislative search and rescue obligations of chopper operators; and the role of the petroleum board and other regulators to uphold worker safety laws.

It's not up to Wells to lay any criminal or civil blame for the Cougar disaster, nor is he to examine the contentious debate over Department of National Defence search and rescue services.

"But that doesn't stop me from examining and making a recommendation on what I think is necessary," he stressed.

Repeated calls for Ottawa to station a 24-hour military search and rescue helicopter in St. John's have escalated since the Cougar tragedy and the sinking of the Sea Gypsy fishing vessel, which killed two men last month.

Federal government and military officials have steadfastly said that Gander, in central Newfoundland, is still the best base for such services.

''The weather conditions here in St. John's and the fog in particular are sometimes prohibitive for helicopters to take off," Defence Minister Peter MacKay said in an interview Friday after meeting with search and rescue, and Coast Guard specialists in St. John's.

''I'm told that the response times are actually not only within a two-hour window, but a one-hour window in most instances.

''I'm very, very appreciative of the fact that minutes seem like hours when you're adrift in the North Atlantic.

''But with the assets that we have, with Cougar Helicopters holding up their obligations vis-a-vis the offshore, we feel we're getting optimal coverage currently."

Sheldon Peddle, a union leader representing about 700 offshore oil workers, begs to differ. A royal commission into the 1982 sinking of the Ocean Ranger drilling rig, killing all 84 workers on board, specifically recommended a search and rescue helicopter at the airport nearest to offshore operations: St. John's.

Peddle says the three remaining Cougar choppers contracted to supplement federal rescue services can't offer the same help as fully equipped military choppers.

They lack forward-looking radar and auto-hover features to help find and save people in the water _ especially at night. Flights to the oil platforms about 300 kilometres from St. John's have been suspended after dark while the choppers are retrofitted, Peddle said. The work is not expected to be finished until at least next summer.

Two of his members have quit since March rather than fly back and forth.

Greg Duggan, a drilling platform worker on Hibernia, lost his younger brother Wade, 32, in the Cougar crash.

"I feel there should be a search-and-rescue helicopter located in St. John's and on standby 24-7," he said. ''There's a lot of activity off the east coast of Newfoundland and I myself work offshore. And I know a lot of people are very worried about search and rescue being located in Gander. Adequate response time just isn't there."


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