Still waiting for Cougar incident reports

Moira Baird
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Union lawyer wants helicopter reports filed automatically to offshore OHS committees

Randell Earle, the lawyer for unionized offshore workers at the Wells inquiry, is still waiting for documents about a handful of helicopter incidents that occurred during flights offshore.

In one incident, the main helicopter door opened just after takeoff from the Hibernia platform.

The aircraft returned to the platform, the door was shut and the helicopter took off again.

Randell Earle, the lawyer for unionized offshore workers at the Wells inquiry, is still waiting for documents about a handful of helicopter incidents that occurred during flights offshore.

In one incident, the main helicopter door opened just after takeoff from the Hibernia platform.

The aircraft returned to the platform, the door was shut and the helicopter took off again.

In another incident, passengers were asked to get out of their seats and harnesses and move to the front of the helicopter to adjust the weight balance before the aircraft landed at Hibernia.

Both incidents occurred in October 2009. (See Page A3 for a complete list.)

Cougar Helicopters Inc. executives agreed to provide further information about the incidents when they appeared at the Wells Inquiry into offshore helicopter safety almost two weeks ago.

As of Monday, Earle had not received it.

Information about helicopter incidents doesn't automatically go to occupational health and safety (OHS) committees at the Hibernia and Terra Nova oilfields.

That's what union officials with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, Local 2121, told the inquiry last week. The union represents workers at both oilfields.

"One of the weaknesses of the current occupational health and safety system is that anything involving helicopters only makes it to OHS committees if an employee hears about an incident and brings it up," said Earle.

"There's no mechanism. We feel there should be a mechanism by which this important information gets to the occupational health and safety committee and gets to the employees so they know.

Randell Earle, lawyer for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, Local 2121, requested information from Cougar Helicopters at the Wells inquiry on Feb. 4 about the following incidents:

July 25, 2006 - An emergency landing of a helicopter in St. John's following an aborted flight to the Hibernia platform. Two engines were powered down to minimum. On July 31, 2006, the OHS committee requested an explanation of the incident. On No. 12, 2006, Earle said a four-line e-mail was received.

Oct. 2, 2009 - Once Flight 531 took off from Hibernia, the passenger cabin door "opened completely." A passenger advised the pilots and the helicopter landed immediately. The door was closed and the flight departed.

Oct. 11, 2009 - Flight 531 to Hibernia was in a "tail-low attitude" and passengers were asked to move from their seats to other seats at the front of the helicopter to adjust the weight balance before landing.

Jan. 4, 2010 - A Cougar S-92A helicopter out of Halifax en route to the drill rig, Rowan Gorilla 3, declared "Pan, Pan, Pan" when a main gearbox chip detector indicator lit up. The aircraft landed safely in Halifax. A maintenance inspection revealed a pin-shaped, foreign metal object. The main gearbox was replaced before the helicopter returned to service.

Jan. 27, 2010 - A hairline crack was found in the right-hand mounting foot on the main gearbox of a Sikorsky S-92A in St. John's. It was found during a scheduled inspection by Cougar. The helicopter was grounded and the main gearbox was replaced.

"You only have to think about what Lori Chynn said.

"She feels confident that if her husband had known about the incident with the bolts, and had the option to go by sea, he would have taken that option."

Last week, Chynn told the inquiry that her late husband, John Pelley, would not have flown if he had known of a problem with the mounting studs that attach the helicopter's oil filter assembly to its main gearbox.

A Jan. 28, 2009, bulletin issued by helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky advised the bolts be replaced within 1,250 flight hours or one year, whichever came first. Without the bolts, oil can leak out of the gearbox.

Pelley was among the 17 people killed in the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash. Two cracked bolts were found in the wreckage of Flight 491.

When union officials appeared at the Wells inquiry last week, they also described personal experiences with aborted helicopter flights.

Brian Murphy, vice-president of CEP, Local 2121, recounted a Jan. 18, 2006, incident as the twin-engine helicopter approached the Terra Nova production ship.

"One of the helicopter engines had to be shut down after an engine-indicator light came on," he told the inquiry Feb. 9. "At that time, the pilot informed us that he was returning to base."

The helicopter made a running landing - similar to that of an airplane - and safely arrived in St. John's.

Murphy said passengers later asked the pilot why he chose to fly more than 75 minutes on half-power to St. John's rather than land at an offshore facility.

"The pilot answered that ... he has done a one-engine landing in a simulator. He didn't want to do it in real-life."

Murphy questioned why the first-response search and rescue (SAR) helicopter wasn't "tasked to get in the air and meet us."

During a Jan. 22, 2006, debriefing at Terra Nova, Murphy said they were told the standby search and rescue (SAR) helicopter and crew were on alert - but had not been refuelled and the rescue hoist had not been installed.

Cougar is contracted by the oil companies to provide first-response SAR to the offshore industry.

"The standby helicopter should be standing by in SAR mode," said Murphy.

Sheldon Peddle, president of the CEP, Local 2121, told the inquiry of a July 25, 2006, incident en route to both the Hibernia and Terra Nova oilfields.

He noticed the helicopter was turning back, and it later descended to about 500 feet.

Peddle told the inquiry last week the pilot announced they were returning to St. John's because of an indictor light on the console. One engine was throttled back to idle.

A short time later, Peddle noticed they were being followed by a military SAR helicopter.

"I saw a Cormorant approaching our helicopter. ... next thing I knew it was up on the left side of the helicopter following us, probably 100 feet back."

It followed the S-92A all the way back to St. John's - something Peddle said he had not heard of before or since.

The pilot told the passengers not to be alarmed. The Cormorant SAR helicopter was on manoeuvres in St. John's and had offered to escort them back.

"We landed like an aircraft, essentially, and we were told at that time that was ... to ease the stress on the engines," Peddle said. "We had emergency equipment following us down the runway, same sort of scenario that Brian went through."

They landed safely in St. John's.

The inquiry resumes Wednesday for the last two days of public hearings.

Howard Pike, chief safety officer of the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, is scheduled to be on the stand.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Hibernia, Cougar Helicopters, Wells Inquiry OHS committee CEP Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board

Geographic location: St. John's, Terra Nova, Halifax

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