Cougar suing Sikorsky

Moira Baird
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Insurance companies also seeking millions in damages over S-92 crash

Cougar Helicopters and eight insurance companies led by Lloyd’s of London are suing Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. for more than $26.6 million in combined damages and losses resulting from the March 12, 2009, helicopter crash that killed 17 people off the coast of Newfoundland.

A Cougar Sikorsky S-92 helicopter takes off from the company's headquarters at St. John's International Airport March 12, 2009.

Also named as defendants in the lawsuit are Helicopter Support Inc., which is Sikorsky’s parts and repair subsidiary, and Transport Canada.

The statement of claim was filed in Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court in June.

Statements of claim contain allegations that have not been proven in court.

Cougar and its insurance companies say they suffered damages resulting from Sikorsky’s breach of duty, gross negligence, negligent misrepresentation, recklessness and wilful misconduct.

They point to a variety of concerns with the Sikorsky S-92 helicopter prior to the crash.

Among them: the use of less durable titanium alloy studs; a poorly designed oil lubrication system; and a main gearbox that could not continue flying for 30 minutes without oil lubrication.

“By promoting and advertising the S-92 as having a ‘30-minute run-dry’ capacity, Sikorsky fraudulently misrepresented to buyers and operators the airworthiness and flight safety of the S-92,” said the claim.

•••

Cougar Flight 491 was en route to the White Rose and Hibernia oilfields when the pilots reported a loss of oil pressure in the main gearbox. The gearbox powers the aircraft’s rotor drive.

The statement of claim said it was the crew’s first indication of a problem.

“Upon that observation … the crew elected not to ditch the helicopter but immediately turned the helicopter towards the nearest landfall, which was well within 30 minutes flying time,” said the claim.

Minutes after heading for shore, the Sikorsky S-92 plunged into the Atlantic Ocean 55 kilometres east of St. John’s.   

Only one of the 18 people onboard survived.

“The elapsed time between the observation by the crew of the loss of main gearbox oil pressure and accident was approximately 11 minutes,” said the claim.

It also said the “immediate cause” of the crash was the failure of two of the three titanium studs that secure the oil filter bowl assembly to the helicopter’s main gearbox.

“The failure of the two studs resulted in the rapid loss of all lubricating oil from the main gearbox and the subsequent failure of the helicopter’s tail rotor drive gear,” said the claim.

Two weeks after the crash, the Transportation Safety Board said the studs broke in flight, resulting in the loss of oil pressure.

Shortly after the discovery, S-92s were grounded worldwide until the titanium studs were replaced.

The TSB is still investigating the chain of events that led to the crash.

Sikorsky has since redesigned the S-92’s oil lubrication system.

•••

Six weeks before the crash, Sikorsky issued an alert service bulletin instructing S-92 operators to replace the titanium studs on the filter bowl assembly with steel studs.

That Jan. 28, 2009, bulletin stated “compliance is essential” within 1,250 flight hours or one year.

The statement of claim said Cougar ordered the replacement parts Feb. 19, and Helicopter Support Inc. shipped the parts four days after the crash.

The statement of claim said Sikorsky failed to notify S-92 operators, such as Cougar, of the severity of a July 2008 incident in Australia that prompted the service bulletin in the first place.

At that time, an S-92 made a successful emergency landing onshore following the failure of two titanium studs.

The failure of those bolts resulted in the total loss of oil from the main gearbox — “precisely the same series of events that caused” the 2009 fatal helicopter crash, said the claim.

•••

The statement of claim notes that promotional material for the S-92 said it was “equipped with a ‘high durability main gearbox’ which had a 30-minute run-dry” capability.

That means the helicopter could fly for one-half-hour after losing all oil in its rotor-drive lubrication system.

The claim said Cougar relied upon this information in selecting the S-92 for its offshore fleet, and “Cougar’s pilots reasonably relied upon the representations in calculating the ‘run-dry’ capability of the helicopter.”

A 30-minute run-dry capability is also a requirement of U.S federal aviation regulations.

The statement of claim said Sikorsky characterized the failure of its lubrication system as “extremely remote,” and based on this the S-92 was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) as having a 30-minute run-dry capability.

In turn, Transport Canada also certified the S-92.

The claim states Transport Canada owed a duty of care to S-92 operators to ensure the helicopter met standards for certification in Canada. It also failed to take steps following the 2008 incident in Australia.

The claim goes on to say the phrase “extremely remote” is defined by the FAA as “less than one failure every 10 million operational hours.”

“Sikorsky’s analysis was flawed,” said the claim. “In particular, it failed to take into account the high risk of failure which was inherent in its design of the main gearbox and its related lubrication system.”

The claim states Sikorsky’s tests revealed the S-92’s main gearbox could not run for longer than 11 minutes without oil.

“Sikorsky made no attempt to redesign the main gearbox and its related lubrication system to improve its run-dry capability nor did it design a supplementary emergency lubrication system or impose operational limits on the helicopter restricting flights to less than 11 minutes from a suitable landing place,” said the claim.

Instead, the claim sates Sikorsky changed its emergency procedures for impending main gearbox failure — introducing “ambiguity and uncertainty” to those procedures.

Those procedures are contained in Sikorsky’s helicopter flight manual, and any changes require approval from the FAA.

The claim said changes were announced by Sikorsky during a February 2009 meeting of helicopter operators, including Cougar.

The claim states Sikorsky deleted “the loss of main gearbox oil pressure as a criteria to ‘land immediately’ ” from the manual, and said the FAA had agreed to change of wording.

•••

Filed in court June 24, the statement of claim seeks damages of more than $24.5 million for the constructive total loss of the helicopter.

Cougar also seeks special damages of almost $2.1 million, including:

• $326,000 in losses due to the grounding of flights offshore for more than two months following the crash;

• $700,000 to date in increased insurance premiums;

• $312,600 for costs incurred to date for participating in the offshore helicopter safety inquiry.

Along with HST, interest and costs of the court action, the claim seeks punitive damages from the helicopter manufacturer “sufficient to deter Sikorsky from again placing its own commercial interests ahead of aviation safety generally and particularly the safety of its customers, their employees and passengers.”

The claim also states the civil trial should take place in St. John’s.

•••

To date, no statements of defence have been filed.

However, Sikorsky and its subsidiary did file an application last week in Newfoundland Supreme Court, asking to have the lawsuit stayed pending decisions on other applications filed with the U.S. District Court of Connecticut.

Connecticut-based Sikorsky and its subsidiary also argue the U.S. District Court is the proper venue for the court action.

A hearing is scheduled for Sept. 10 in Newfoundland Supreme Court on Sikorsky’s application.

Sikorsky had no comment when contacted Wednesday by The Telegram.

“It’s our policy not to comment on litigation,” said company spokesman Paul Jackson.

VIH Aviation Group, the British Columbia-based parent company of Cougar, also declined comment.

“As this matter is before the courts, we have no comment at this time,” said spokesman Christian Kittleson in an e-mailed response.

Transport Canada did not provide a response by deadline.

mbaird@thetelegram.com

Organizations: Helicopter Support, Supreme Court, Transportation Safety Board FAA Transport Canada U.S. Federal Aviation Authority US District Court The Telegram Paul Jackson.VIH Aviation Group

Geographic location: White Rose, Australia, US Canada Newfoundland

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Recent comments

  • Erik
    August 27, 2010 - 12:30

    WILLIAM DANIELS - August 26th, 2010 at 14:57:11 Why are they still using the S92? ______________________________ Not too many other equivalent options for heavy lift helicopters out there to transport crew. EC225, AS332, AW139, S61 etc have all had their fair share of crashes or incidents. Probably the best time to operate an S92, because Sikorsky knows they are battling public, regulatory perception. They have one more crash and the S92 program will be in big trouble.

  • Erik
    August 27, 2010 - 12:21

    No surprises here.

  • William Daniels
    August 26, 2010 - 11:10

    Cougar states: "Cougar and its insurance companies say they suffered damages resulting from Sikorsky’s breach of duty, gross negligence, negligent misrepresentation, recklessness and wilful misconduct." Why are they still using the S92?