Submission to Wells inquiry seeks safety equipment improvements
The families of the pilots killed in last year’s helicopter crash want improved safety equipment — including mandatory helmet use — for helicopter crews flying offshore workers to the oilfields off Newfoundland and Labrador.
The Transportation Safety Board has found helicopter pilots far too infrequently wear helmets which could help them from sustaining injuries. — File photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram
Kate O’Brien, lawyer for the families of the Cougar Flight 491 pilots, made that case in a July 30 submission to the Wells inquiry into offshore helicopter safety.
In it, she noted an aviation safety advisory from the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) last October on the importance of helmets for helicopter pilots.
The Flight 491 pilots were not wearing helmets at the time of the crash — and they are not mandatory under Canadian aviation regulations.
“Although not fatally injured during the impact sequence, both pilots received severe injuries due in part to striking their heads/faces against the instrument panel,” said the advisory.
The TSB investigation into the crash is ongoing.
Topping the families’ list of safety equipment improvements:
• mandatory helmets, complete with visors, for pilots;
• immersion suits for flight crews that meet the same standard for hypothermia protection as suits designed for helicopter passengers;
• spray hoods on flight suits to help prevent drowning.
Pilot Matthew Davis and co-pilot Timothy Lanouette were among the 17 people who died March 12, 2009, when their helicopter plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.
It sank shortly afterward in 178 metres of water.
Prior to the crash, the TSB advisory estimated about 10 per cent of Cougar Helicopters’ pilots routinely wore helmets during flights.
It said a majority of pilots cited discomfort as the reason for not wearing them.
“In addition, very few pilots had fully considered that partial incapacitation due to a head or face injury could compromise their ability to help their passengers after an accident,” said the advisory.
In May 2009, Cougar implemented a cost-sharing program to increase helmet usage by pilots.
“The operator stated that approximately 50 per cent of their pilots have participated thus far and they anticipate 75 per cent participation,” said the TSB advisory.
Transport Canada encouraged helmet use in an aviation safety newsletter this year — and it priced the cost of a well-equipped helmet at more than $3,000.
It also said each of the latest generation, twin-engine helicopters have suffered a serious or fatal accident worldwide in the last three years.
Entitled “Helicopter Safety Helmets — A Hard S(h)ell,” the article was written by Transport Canada program manager Rob Freeman.
“It is the secondary impact that causes head trauma and kills,” Freeman wrote.
“The primary impact is the airframe striking the terrain or water
“The secondary impact results from inertia, causing the crew to strike hard fixed objects within the cockpit.”
Helicopters are the primary means of shuttling offshore workers to oilfield platforms and rigs.
While the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) regulates the province’s oil industry, it has no jurisdiction over helicopter transportation.
Transport Canada licenses and certifies the helicopters, pilots, maintenance engineers and dispatch systems used in the province’s offshore oil industry.
“No doubt the first objection to many of the suggestions made in this brief will be that the CNLOPB does not regulate air operators and has no jurisdiction over the regulation of the industry,” said the submission by the families of the Flight 491 pilots.
“This is true, but does it make this road a dead end? We believe not.”
The families say the CNLOPB has other means of regulating offshore helicopter transportation — starting with the oil companies.
They recommend the oil companies require Cougar:
• use safety equipment and clothing, including helmets, suits, spray hoods that have been fully tested for use in the North Atlantic;
• regularly evaluate safety equipment used by flight crews;
• pay the full cost of flight crew safety equipment;
• provide regular education programs for flight crews on safety equipment and on the risks of not using it.
Unlike immersion suits for passengers, there is no Canadian standard for the suits worn by pilots flying offshore. (The standard for passenger suits is under review.)
J.J. Gerber, Cougar’s director of flight operations, told the Wells inquiry in June that company pilots wear the same immersion suits worn by pilots in the Norwegian oil and gas industry.
Gerber said flight crew suits have a lower thermal protection than those worn by passengers, and are rated for six hours in the water.
He also told the inquiry that pilots, who average eight to 10 flights per week, wear the less bulky suits for two reasons:
• mobility in the confined space of helicopter cockpits equipped with numerous switches and levers — “I have to be able to manoeuvre.”
• alertness — “If the temperature goes up and it stays up, our alertness seems to go down, and that’s what we’re trying to avoid,” Gerber said.