Repetition the key to safety training

Moira Baird
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Helicopter inquiry hears from experts in cold water survival

A pair of experts on cold water training and survival told the Wells inquiry Tuesday the more training offshore workers receive in escaping a submerged helicopter the greater their chances of retaining those survival skills.

Both research consultants compiled reports at the request of the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety.

They said repetition is the key to effective survival courses in helicopter underwater escape training (HUET).

The lawyer for unionized offshore workers at Hibernia and Terra Nova said people working in the province's oilfields may not be getting as much training as they need.

Michael Taber, a research consultant from Nova Scotia, testified Tuesday at the Offshore Helicopter Inquiry. Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

A pair of experts on cold water training and survival told the Wells inquiry Tuesday the more training offshore workers receive in escaping a submerged helicopter the greater their chances of retaining those survival skills.

Both research consultants compiled reports at the request of the inquiry into offshore helicopter safety.

They said repetition is the key to effective survival courses in helicopter underwater escape training (HUET).

The lawyer for unionized offshore workers at Hibernia and Terra Nova said people working in the province's oilfields may not be getting as much training as they need.

It's one of the lessons Randell Earle took from presentations by consultants Michael Taber based in St. Catharines, Ont., and Dr. Susan Coleshaw based in Aberdeen, Scotland.

"People are not getting enough practice in the tasks that are necessary for escape from a submerged helicopter, and that's obviously concerning," Earle said.

"One of the things that came up is that they do not jettison the exit from the HUET under water.

"Mr. Taber was quite clear that he feels that is something which should be practised in the training."

Earle said some unionized offshore workers have expressed concern about the depth of the training they receive. For others, the training is stressful.

"The training is something which creates a fair level of anxiety for a lot of people.

"I think one of the things that we can take from Dr. Coleshaw is that the training done well, in fact, decreases anxiety."

The Wells inquiry was established following the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash that killed 17 offshore workers and flight crew.

Survival skills diminish

Even after six months, Taber said one-third of people were not able to perform basic skills underwater.

"I think the research has shown that quite convincingly that, yes, in fact, we're not retaining that information as long as what we might have thought.

"This comes from the U.K., as well as research that's been done here in Canada."

Between 1998 and 2006, Taber trained more than 10,000 people in underwater helicopter escape as an instructor with Nova Scotia-based Survival Systems Training.

HUET training typically requires offshore workers to practice escaping through exits of a submerged helicopter simulator while wearing an immersion suit.

The exits - both doors and push-out windows - are often jettisoned before the simulator is submerged.

"It's been shown in research both here, as well as in the U.K., that jettisoning the exit while under water and in the inverted position is desirable," said Taber. "That it's important for people to be able to practise the skill that they're going to use in a real situation."

In an emergency, Taber said it's unlikely passengers will get a chance to open the exits while a helicopter is still on the surface of the water.

"We know from research ... that the roll-over rate, the inversion rate of helicopters is quite high."

Taber said about 70 per cent of helicopters that touch down on water rapidly roll over.

Helicopter stability

Earlier in the day, Coleshaw walked the inquiry through research done in the U.K. on helicopter stability since the mid-1990s.

There, researchers are studying floatation systems that may prevent a helicopter from capsizing following a controlled ditching.

"All helicopters are inherently unstable due to the fact that the weight is very high up and they've got a very high centre of gravity," said Coleshaw.

One study looked at adding extra buoyancy on the helicopter engine cowling and extra floatation bags to prevent the aircraft from flipping over completely. When scale models were tested in a wave tank, the helicopter rolled onto one side.

This left one set of exits above the water and an air pocket within the cabin.

Trials were also done with people in simulators to mimic the helicopter on its side complete with air pocket. Researchers then measured breath-hold time.

"With the side-floating scenario, the average time that the head was under water was 9.5 seconds," said Coleshaw. "With the full inversion and having to do the underwater escape, that time, on average, was 20 seconds."

Coleshaw said the European Aviation Safety Agency restarted the decade-long research in 2008.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Hibernia, Survival Systems Training, European Aviation Safety Agency

Geographic location: Terra Nova, Aberdeen, Scotland Canada U.K.

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