Inquiry commissioner Robert Wells prepares to hear final submissions from various legal counsel at the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry in St. John’s in this Telegram file photo. Wells released his final report Monday. — File photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
The Wells Inquiry hit its final milestone Monday with the public release of its last report on ways to improve helicopter safety for offshore workers flying to and from the province’s oilfields.
Helicopter inquiry commissioner Robert Wells reiterated his previous call for an independent offshore safety agency — saying it should have a “clear and unambiguous” safety mandate and “wide powers” to complement other regulators, such as Transport Canada, which is responsible for aviation.
Wells’ said the independent agency wouldn’t supercede other regulators, but it should have an “all-encompassing oversight role” over every facet of safety in the offshore oil industry.
“It’s what I describe as the regulator of last resort,” said Wells in an interview.
“Whatever other regulators do, that’s fine. But when it comes to the offshore, the regulator here may require more, and if you think you require more, do it.”
In the 2 1/2 years since the inquiry began its work, Wells said he has learned much about offshore safety issues.
“I hope that good is coming out of it.”
The Wells inquiry was created following the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash that claimed the lives of 17 of 18 people on board a Sikorsky S-92A flown by Cougar Helicopters.
It was established by the offshore regulator, the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.
“The oversight role which I am recommending would not conflict with the roles of other regulators, but it would when necessary enhance other regulatory measures,” said Wells’ report.
“What then should the safety regulator’s mandate be? I believe that it should have the right and the duty to examine and inquire into every operational aspect of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador offshore.
“Only then can it ensure that safety is being advanced in every possible way. Helicopter transportation is … the most dangerous part of an offshore worker’s work.”
Thirty-minute run dry
In Phase 2 of the inquiry, Wells reviewed the Transportation Safety Board’s (TSB) investigation report that detailed the chain of events leading to the 2009 crash.
He endorsed the TSB findings, including a key recommendation that said passenger helicopters should be able to fly for at least 30 minutes without oil in the main gearbox.
As the TSB has also suggested, Wells said helicopters used in extreme environments, such as those off Newfoundland, may require an even longer run-dry capability.
“They said 30 minutes is a good start, but they should be working toward a longer run-dry component.”
Wells said there were warning signs the Sikorsky S-92A was not up to that task of flying for 30 minutes without oil.
“An independent and autonomous safety regulator, as I envisage it, would have known the history of the certification of the S-92A and also known of the Australian incident and of the danger that a complete loss of main gearbox oil might occur again; it could have taken appropriate steps to mitigate such a danger,” said Wells’ report.
In July 2008, an S-92A lost oil pressure near Broome, Australia, when two of three titanium studs broke in flight.
The chopper wasn’t far from shore and the pilots landed safely about eight minutes after noticing the drop in oil pressure.
“The significance of the Australian incident did not seem to resonate as it should have,” said Wells.
“The regulators should have had a mandate to recognize and dig into these signs and say, ‘What went on here?’”
He also questioned a January 2009 alert service bulletin issued by Sikorsky Aircraft Corp.
It required S-92A operators replace the titanium bolts with steel bolts within one year or 1,250 flight hours, whichever came first.
“Why not tomorrow?” said Wells. “Three little bolts you could hold in your hand, and it takes three or four hours to replace them.”
Following the 2009 helicopter crash, S-92As were grounded worldwide until the titanium studs were replaced.