Anxious families await Transportation Safety Board report on fatal chopper crash

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The wreckage of the Cougar Helicopter flight 491 displayed to the media as the Transportation Safety Board reports on its findings, in St. John's March 26, 2009. The Transportation Safety Board is expected on Wednesday to release its final report into the cause of the disaster that killed 17 people. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Daly

Capt. Matthew Davis was a doting father and a helicopter pilot living his dream when Cougar Flight 491 slammed into the icy waters off Newfoundland.

He died on March 12, 2009, at the age of 34, leaving his cherished wife Marsha, young son William, and daughter Shannon whose fifth birthday was that very day.

Marsha Davis is among family members who will be watching Wednesday as the Transportation Safety Board releases its final report into the cause of the disaster that killed 17 people.

“I believe my husband did whatever he could to bring the helicopter as close to land as he could, rather than ditching in the Atlantic,” Davis said from Torbay, N.L.

“I wouldn’t want to ditch a helicopter in the Atlantic.”

Her beloved Matt died along with co-pilot Tim Lanouette and 15 passengers headed to Newfoundland’s offshore oil fields when the Sikorsky S-92 chopper pitched out of control and crashed.

Sole survivor Robert Decker was rescued after a narrow escape from the fast-sinking wreckage, enduring 75 minutes on the frigid surface in a leaking survival suit as he waited for help. Another passenger, 26-year-old Allison Maher, was dead on the surface when rescuers reached her.

The other victims were later recovered from the wreck site.

Military search and rescue crews based in Gander, N.L. were two hours away on training in Nova Scotia that day — a fact that has drawn outraged calls for expanded service and faster response times.

The pilots of Cougar Flight 491 reported a loss of oil pressure in the chopper’s main gearbox about 11 minutes before they hit the water. They turned back for land and told passengers they were “Ditching! Ditching! Ditching!” just before plunging into the sea some 55 kilometres east of St. John’s.

“I guess almost as soon as they said ’Ditch’ the helicopter lost control,” Decker told a public inquiry of the flight’s terrifying last seconds.

The Transportation Safety Board has already confirmed that two of three titanium studs that secure the oil filter bowl assembly to the helicopter’s main gearbox broke in flight, causing a loss of oil pressure. Oil is essential to grease the gears that power the aircraft’s rotor drive, maintaining control in the air.

Those studs have since been replaced with steel parts on other Sikorsky S-92 helicopters.

The Transportation Safety Board has said that the chopper’s main rotor was still turning on impact, but that driving power to the tail rotor had failed.

Flotation collars meant to keep the aircraft from sinking never deployed as the helicopter hit the water with extreme force from a height of 150 metres.

A key question is the extent to which the TSB report will discuss the length of time the pilots thought they had to land the helicopter as the ability of the gearbox to operate for 30 minutes after losing oil became an issue in the aftermath of the crash.

“I think it will confirm what’s generally believed: that the pilots thought they had more time to deal with (the problem) than they actually did,” said Danny Breen, a St. John’s city councillor whose brother Pete was killed in the accident.

His older brother worked for East Coast Catering on the SeaRose production vessel in the North Atlantic.

“Growing up, he (Pete) took me to my first movie and my first hockey game,” said Breen.

“I think we all would like to have confirmed in our minds what happened that day.”

A lawsuit led by Cougar Helicopters and eight insurance companies accuses Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. of “reckless behaviour and wilful misconduct.” It alleges Sikorsky used a “flawed” analysis to claim its helicopter could run for 30 minutes after losing oil in its main gearbox.

“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,” it says.

The statement of claim has not been proven in court. A statement of defence has not been filed amid an ongoing challenge over whether the case should be heard in Canada or the United States, where Sikorsky is based.

Thirty minutes would have given the Cougar Flight 491 pilots ample time to reach land, says the claim.

Sikorsky spokesman Paul Jackson said in an email that the company won’t comment or speculate on the cause of the crash “or other matters related to pending litigation.”

Also at issue is whether the Rotorcraft Flight Manual relied on by the pilots sufficiently stressed the urgent need to land if oil pressure dramatically dropped.

An airworthiness directive issued after the crash by the Federal Aviation Administration — the U.S.-based prime certifier of the main gearbox — sought to clarify potential confusion.

The FAA had determined that certain main gearbox emergency procedures in the flight manual “are unclear, may cause confusion, and may mislead the crew regarding ... malfunctions, in particular the urgency to land immediately after warning indications of loss of (main gearbox) oil pressure and oil pressure below five pounds per square inch.”

Jackson said in his emailed response that the manual “both at the time of the accident and currently, requires the pilots to LAND IMMEDIATELY when the (main gearbox) oil pressure is less than five psi.”

Marsha Davis laughed just a little when she recalled how much her husband loved to fly.

“And he was really good at it. He had lots of experience, Matt did. He’d been flying since 1993.

“I’m struggling with loss like anyone who’s been through loss. And this has been such a tragic event.”

Ada Kenny fights tears just talking about her husband Keith’s helicopter flights to and from his job as an offshore galley steward.

Allison Maher was their niece, and her death on Cougar Flight 491 is never far from their minds.

“When the day comes for him to go out, he’s still nervous,” Kenny said of her husband.

“It’s in everybody’s head still. And it’s probably fresher in ours because we had the tragedy,” she said from Fermeuse, N.L., a tiny community along the Avalon Peninsula’s eastern coast.

“If I hear a chopper, you know I still cringe.”

Organizations: Transportation Safety Board, Cougar Flight 491, Federal Aviation Administration Sikorsky Aircraft Rotorcraft Flight Manual

Geographic location: Atlantic, Torbay, Newfoundland Gander Nova Scotia United States North Atlantic Canada Fermeuse Avalon Peninsula

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