'It's hard to believe a year has passed'

Moira Baird
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The one-year anniversary of the crash of Cougar Flight 491 is a sombre reminder for oilfield workers of the perils of flying to their jobs off Newfoundland.

The feeling offshore is as varied as the people who work there - ranging from anxiety, to disbelief that a year has already passed, to a kind of stoicism that comes with years of working a dangerous job.

Flowers hang on the fence at the Cougar Helicopter landing pad in St. John's Thursday, the day before the first anniversary of the crash of Cougar Flight 491 on March 12, 2009. - Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

The one-year anniversary of the crash of Cougar Flight 491 is a sombre reminder for oilfield workers of the perils of flying to their jobs off Newfoundland.

The feeling offshore is as varied as the people who work there - ranging from anxiety, to disbelief that a year has already passed, to a kind of stoicism that comes with years of working a dangerous job.

The flight offshore ramps up that danger for a couple of hours.

For some, it's just one more peril to endure; for others, it borders on the unbearable.

Some people don't trust the helicopters, others don't mind flying.

The Telegram spoke to a number of offshore workers. The names of those who agreed to be interviewed for this story have been withheld from publication.

Memorial services and wreath-laying ceremonies will take place at the White Rose, Hibernia and Terra Nova oilfields in remembrance of the 17 people who lost their lives when their helicopter plunged into the ocean off St. John's.

Hundreds will also attend a memorial service in St. John's this evening.

"It's hard to believe a year has passed since the Cougar Flight 491 accident," said Kevin Kelly, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers, Local 2121, in an e-mail. "This is a comment I have heard a lot in the last couple of days."

Kelly was elected last month as the head of the union that represents more than 600 workers at Hibernia and Terra Nova .

A central control room operator, Kelly was at Hibernia the day of the crash and remembers the anxiety everyone felt.

Today will be little different.

"I feel it will be a sombre day. Two of our employees, who are presently here, had brothers on Flight 491," he said.

"The CNLOPB hearings have resulted in some changes to the way helicopters operate offshore. Hopefully, more changes will come so that we won't have to relive this type of incident again."

The CNLOPB, or Canada-New-foundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, set up the inquiry last year.

Led by retired Supreme Court Justice Robert Wells, it's investigating ways to make helicopter travel safer for offshore workers.

Wells' early recommendation requires the oil companies to station a full-time search and rescue (SAR) helicopter in St. John's that can be airborne in 20 minutes. Previously, the SAR helicopter had up to one hour to launch.

One offshore veteran started working in the oil industry when safety procedures were much different than they are today - he'd throw his bags in the back of the chopper, smoke during flights and travel in all kinds of weather.

Crashing was the furthest thing from his mind.

"I never had any fears of getting on it."

Since the crash of Flight 491, things are different.

"I know it's on everybody's mind, because now you're listening for every little squeak and rattle. It was different before. You'd hear a flutter in the blades or something and think no more to it than that. But now, it's like, 'What's that'?"

He has few doubts everything is being done to make helicopter travel as safe as it can be.

"Personally, I think they're trying to do everything they can possibly do."

His main helicopter concern is the auxiliary fuel tank that sits inside the passenger cabin. It's disliked by most offshore workers.

"That's on people's minds all right - having that tank in the chopper. When you've got to get out in a crash situation, you've got to get around this tank somehow."

Cougar Helicopters, which transports workers offshore, has said the auxiliary fuel tank is necessary for travelling greater distances.

Many offshore workers still wonder why extra fuel isn't carried somewhere else on the helicopter.

"It doesn't make sense to me. If you're building these choppers to work offshore ... why didn't they make it so the tank's not in the cabin?"

He has only good things to say about the new survival suits known as the HTS-1.

When zipped, he can move his head from side to side - something that is still difficult in the E-452 suit still worn by most offshore workers.

"To be able to move your head is a plus."

The new suit - which provides better face and wrist seals, and is a better overall fit - will be available to all offshore workers in the coming months.

Offshore flights are not enjoyable for most passengers, according to another offshore worker.

"It's not a very comfortable ride."

He'd like to see helicopter engineers take passenger comfort into consideration when designing what he calls "tin cans."

He says the first few minutes of flights out of St. John's are usually the worst.

"Everybody, for the first five minutes, is sort of shit-baked."

Turbulence usually occurs when the helicopter flies over land, or approaches land on the return trip.

"It's not too bad ... people are a little nervous. But after a couple of minutes everybody's in the groove."

The possibility of another crash occurs to him from time to time.

"It's always on your mind. ... You have to prepare for the worst, in my opinion. It's like driving to work in a car - how often do these incidents happen?"

Helicopters are the main transportation mode used in offshore oil and gas industries around the world, and he says crashes are not likely to change that.

"If and when it happens again, it's still going to be the single mode of transportation out here."

He says worrying about it doesn't help. "There are still quite a few people out here who talk about that crash every day. If it consumes you, you're just going to have to say, 'This is it," and throw in the towel."

Another offshore worker says everyone has their own comfort zone, depending on the flights.

"Some flights are easier, some flights are harder."

In the days before the first anniversary of the crash, he finds it difficult to talk about Flight 491, the people he knew or how he feels about flying to work for his 21-day shift offshore.

And he doesn't expect it will get easier in the year ahead.

"We're still in a holding pattern until Judge Wells releases his inquiry report, and the TSB (Transportation Safety Board) investigation report - that's the big one -comes out."

Both reports are expected this fall. "It's not going to get any easier this year."

He says the TSB report will be especially difficult for people working offshore since it will likely provide details of what happened in the final minutes before the helicopter crashed.

An offshore worker who has left the industry cited last year's crash as one of his main reasons for moving on.

"It was too hard on my family seeing me leave on the chopper and I was not comfortable flying, either," he said in an e-mail. He moved to Alberta to start a new life.

Another offshore worker, who's not fond of flying either, tries not to think about what could go wrong with the helicopter.

"I've got concerns, but they're no different than they were before the accident. Stuff crosses your mind ... it's not really any different than it was before.

"I think they're doing the best they can for safety. The S-92s - the vibrations in them and the feet cracking - that's a bit of a concern. There's a lot of people got concerns about that. What you've got to do is keep the chopper in the air."

He doesn't understand why a Jan. 28, 2009, Sikorsky bulletin advised mounting studs, which held the oil filter assembly in place, should be replaced in 1,250 flying hours or one year, whichever came first.

"Three little tiny bolts that took no time to change out. Why would you give them extra time? Why not ground them?"

He knows three people who've left the industry since the crash.

"When it first happened, everyone was in shock. You wondered what happened, no one knew for sure what happened."

Since then, he says TSB officials have explained to offshore workers what went wrong, giving them presentations and showing them investigation photographs.

On his first flight back to work, he expected to be nervous.

"I really wasn't. It was no different.

"It'd always cross your mind when you're going out there anyway. You'd think about it, but you'd never speak about it."

He approves of the Wells Inquiry recommendation for a full-time SAR helicopter provided by the oil companies.

He says the companies - not the federal government - should be paying for those SAR services.

"That's only a drop in the bucket for all of those oil companies ... to put a helicopter there and crew it.

"It should have been there anyway."

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Cougar Flight 491, Hibernia, Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board Transportation Safety Board Wells Inquiry

Geographic location: St. John's, Terra Nova, Newfoundland White Rose Alberta

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Comments

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Recent comments

  • egc
    July 02, 2010 - 13:29

    It always crosses your mind , you'd think about it but you'd never speak about it .

    I don't know how maney flights I took offshore . From the very early 1980's on the old Bell 14's to the Super Puma's to the S-92's used today . Every time I left St. Johns and started over the dark blue , cold North Atlantic , I thought about it but never spoke about it . I haven't travelled offshore for a few years , but now that something has happened I can't imagine how hard it is for the workers to get back on a chopper .

    God bless the vistims of 491 and there families and friends. God bless Mr. Decker. God bless all offshore workers .

  • Manuel
    July 02, 2010 - 13:25

    It is very hard to put this behind you. In fact we cant, mainly because the media wont let us. Everytime i turn on the news or read the telegram its an anniversary of something bad.
    Do you really think any of the family wants to open the paper on a day like today and see this plastered all over it.
    I have family and friends in the military that were killed and everytime it comes up on the news or a ceremony is held you guys bring back everyones pain.
    Let em bury their memories with the family that died. Constantly reliving this isnt good for anyone only the telegram and other media outlets that are making a buck off the dead people.

  • frank
    July 02, 2010 - 13:17

    Ihope someone looks into the need to provide crash helmets for chopper passengers, we dont allow our kids to ride a bike without a helmet, but we load these guys on a chopper without one

  • Offshore
    July 02, 2010 - 13:16

    God bless the families of cougar flight 491.

  • Peggy
    July 02, 2010 - 13:10

    What an uncomprehendable harrowing year for the families of the victims of this terrible crash, as well as the one survivor. It's wonderful that this Service is arranged for this evening because you can all be together again and weep and sob and cry and scream, even get angry, and talk to one another who truly understands what you are actually going through, and, of course, pray together to our Creator. Please, try to let go and give all your heartache and pain and sorrows and burdens to God, and allow Him to hold you and comfort you. Rest in His Arms. Your loved ones are with God, and are watching over you.

  • egc
    July 01, 2010 - 20:17

    It always crosses your mind , you'd think about it but you'd never speak about it .

    I don't know how maney flights I took offshore . From the very early 1980's on the old Bell 14's to the Super Puma's to the S-92's used today . Every time I left St. Johns and started over the dark blue , cold North Atlantic , I thought about it but never spoke about it . I haven't travelled offshore for a few years , but now that something has happened I can't imagine how hard it is for the workers to get back on a chopper .

    God bless the vistims of 491 and there families and friends. God bless Mr. Decker. God bless all offshore workers .

  • Manuel
    July 01, 2010 - 20:11

    It is very hard to put this behind you. In fact we cant, mainly because the media wont let us. Everytime i turn on the news or read the telegram its an anniversary of something bad.
    Do you really think any of the family wants to open the paper on a day like today and see this plastered all over it.
    I have family and friends in the military that were killed and everytime it comes up on the news or a ceremony is held you guys bring back everyones pain.
    Let em bury their memories with the family that died. Constantly reliving this isnt good for anyone only the telegram and other media outlets that are making a buck off the dead people.

  • frank
    July 01, 2010 - 19:57

    Ihope someone looks into the need to provide crash helmets for chopper passengers, we dont allow our kids to ride a bike without a helmet, but we load these guys on a chopper without one

  • Offshore
    July 01, 2010 - 19:56

    God bless the families of cougar flight 491.

  • Peggy
    July 01, 2010 - 19:46

    What an uncomprehendable harrowing year for the families of the victims of this terrible crash, as well as the one survivor. It's wonderful that this Service is arranged for this evening because you can all be together again and weep and sob and cry and scream, even get angry, and talk to one another who truly understands what you are actually going through, and, of course, pray together to our Creator. Please, try to let go and give all your heartache and pain and sorrows and burdens to God, and allow Him to hold you and comfort you. Rest in His Arms. Your loved ones are with God, and are watching over you.