CNLOPB not weighing in on idea of extension to flying day
David Moores is a lawyer and a resident of St. John’s, and has piloted small helicopters at night. With a family member working in the offshore oil industry, he is closely following the public debate over nighttime flights for offshore workers.
“Generally speaking, the risk factors go up and the incidents and accidents go up disproportionately to the amount of time spent flying in the dark,” he said, summarizing his review of statistics and incident reports.
He took an interest in the federal Transportation Safety Board (TSB) investigation into the near-crash of an offshore helicopter flight July 23, 2011. That flight was leaving the Sea Rose production vessel about
3 p.m., with pilot, co-pilot and five passengers, when it entered a sudden drop shortly after takeoff.
“As the helicopter descended through 200 feet above sea level, it broke through the clouds, and the flight crew was able to see the water below,” the TSB’s report stated.
The aircraft was pulled up with water splashing up onto its body, less than 12 metres above the ocean’s surface.
It was not the first such close call, and Moores questions what might have been the result if the same cases were in the pitch black of night.
No application yet
Oil companies producing offshore have announced their intentions to apply to the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) for a modest extension in the flying day, changing the standing ban on night flights, in order to avoid a backlog in worker transports.
If approved, it would allow for takeoff or landing in the dark at
St. John’s International Airport.
The request has not yet been filed with the CNLOPB.
“When operators do submit a proposal to the board for consideration, we will take whatever time we deem necessary to review it, consult as necessary, and make a determination as to whether the risk associated with it fits within our safety framework, which is grounded in the principle that risks must be reduced to a level that is as low as reasonably practicable,” said Scott Tessier, the CNLOPB’s chair and CEO, addressing a Rotary Club luncheon in St. John’s Tuesday.
Paul Barnes, manager in Atlantic Canada with the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), said Wednesday there is no date set for the filing.
Statistics say no-go
For some, concern around night flights focuses on the potential for a crash.
For Brian Murphy, who works on the Terra Nova FPSO and is president of his union local, the focus is what happens once a helicopter hits the water.
“It’s not that it’s more dangerous, it’s that the fatality rate is higher. If you ditch at night, the fatality rate is higher,” he said, noting many offshore workers go no further on the issue than that.
Because of the increased risk of dying in the case of a crash, Murphy said he continues to object to any move towards nighttime helicopter flights.
Dr. Michael Taber is an expert quoted in arguments both for and against night flights. He works for Falck Safety Services Canada out of Dartmouth, N.S., and has seven years’ experience as a helicopter technician with the Royal Canadian Air Force, nine years’ experience as a survival instructor and more than 15 years’ experience researching the escape from helicopters after a ditching.
“The problem with the statistical analysis is, we’re talking about several — and when I say several, I mean 20, 30, even 40 — different types of aircraft, (and) personnel from all over the world, some having high level of training, some having low levels of training, so it’s very difficult to just say straight out that night flights are not as safe as day flights. So that’s one of the problems,” he said on the numbers.
Day or night, consideration must continue to be given to improving survival rates, he said.
Locally, he said, Cougar Helicopters has minimized risk by training its pilots and crew to the highest standards, with equipment and search and rescue resources capable of a response rivalling a number of military organizations around the world.
Other considerations have been looked at in recent years. Training for offshore workers is now under review.
“The current program doesn’t put it all together, and in an emergency it’s difficult for us to make decisions that might benefit us, if we haven’t had the opportunity to practice that skill set,” he said, explaining workers need to step through the entirety of a helicopter ditching in one go during training, rather than, say, inflating a life raft and then trying a helicopter simulator.
“And that’s one of the things that I think we’re starting to look at now, is how do we integrate that program into the current training standards, so that includes whole-task demonstrations of post-egress skills.”
The decision to be made
Addressing risk factors in regards to the likelihood of accidents and fatalities is one thing, but no one in a position of power — provincial government, federal government or CNLOPB — has yet answered the question of whether or not they approve of increasing the risk for offshore workers, in order to allow oil companies to keep schedules and avoid added cost.
“Lines of questioning regarding (night flights) should be directed to the operators,” said a spokeswoman for Cougar Helicopters, in an email response to questions.
Cougar Helicopters is already operating flights at night, but without passengers, moving supplies and equipment. Those flights are not regulted by the CNLOPB.