‘Safety is taking a back seat to the bottom line’

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The U.S. aviation regulator has ruled the there is no need for a retrofit of the gearbox blamed for the March 2009 crash of Cougar Flight 491. The ruling rejects a call by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to phase in a requirement that all Sikorsky S-92A gearboxes be capable of operating for at least 30 minutes after losing oil. — Telegram file photo

A lawyer for the families of victims of a 2009 helicopter crash off the coast of Newfoundland says he is disappointed the U.S. aviation regulator will not require the retrofit of a gearbox blamed in the accident by Canadian investigators.

Joe Fiorante said the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is moving in the right direction by proposing to change a rule that would require future Sikorsky S-92A helicopters to be capable of operating for at least 30 minutes after losing oil.

But he says it hasn’t gone far enough in its response to the crash of Cougar Flight 491 because it rejects a call by the Transportation Safety Board of Canada to require the gradual retrofit of the main gearbox on the existing fleet in Canada and elsewhere the world.

“We know it is possible now for manufacturers to make a gearbox that has 30-minute run-dry capability,” he said in an interview.

“It’s disappointing they’re not looking for a way to practically retrofit the existing fleet to bring it up to a level of safety that should have been required in the first place.”

The March 2009 crash resulted in 17 deaths during a flight to an offshore oil platform.

In its final report, the Transportation Safety Board determined that 11 minutes before the Cougar crash, the main gearbox lost oil pressure.

The investigation also showed the FAA granted Sikorsky a safety certification stating the main gearbox could operate for 30 minutes after losing oil, and based the decision on its view that the chances of a loss of oil were “extremely remote.”

The safety board’s report concluded the loss of oil in the gearbox was part of a web of factors that caused the crash, including problems with training and the way the gearbox oil filter was installed.

The report recommended the FAA, Transport Canada and the European Aviation Safety Agency remove the “extremely remote” provision from the safety certification requirements.

In practical terms, that meant the manufacturers would be re-quired to come up with a change to the gearbox to ensure it could keep running after losing oil.

An FAA memo that was recently released on the Transportation Safety Board’s website says a rule change for gearboxes will be proposed for future aircraft, but requiring new gearboxes on existing helicopters would be costly for the industry.

“The FAA does not believe it is practical or necessary to require that all existing and newly manufactured transport ... helicopters be equipped with main gearboxes that meet the 30-minute ‘loss of lubrication’ requirement,” reads the document.

“Furthermore, modifying these helicopters to be equipped with new main gearboxes would have a significant economic impact on the aviation community, and the costs would outweigh any improvements in safety,” the memo reads.

Details of the FAA memo, dated April 28, have not been previously reported, even though the Transportation Safety Board publicly reacted to the U.S. agency’s position.

Lori Chynn, 44, whose husband John Pelley died in the crash, said she is disappointed at the FAA’s decision.

“I just feel that once again we’re saying money is trumping safety,” she said in a telephone interview from her home in Deer Lake. “Safety is taking a back seat to the bottom line which is cost, and that’s unfortunate when you’re talking about people’s lives.”

Her husband was a nurse on the offshore platform and was flying to work when the helicopter went into the North Atlantic 55 kilometres east of St. John’s.

Last month, the Transportation Safety Board’s chairwoman described the FAA’s response as “a little bit tentative.”

“We’d like to have a minimum standard so that all the helicopters in that category, if they lose oil they’ll be able to fly for 30 minutes,” said Wendy Tadros.

“There seems to be good intent there, but we don’t have firm plans or commitments there.”

A spokesman for Sikorsky says the manufacturer agrees with the FAA decision not to require changes to the 140 existing S-92As operating in 23 countries.

Organizations: Federal Aviation Administration, Transportation Safety Board of Canada, Transport Canada European Aviation Safety Agency U.S. agency

Geographic location: Newfoundland, U.S., Canada Deer Lake

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  • Political watcher
    July 20, 2011 - 17:40

    Well, last time I checked this is Canada; Transport Canada passes laws indicating that this dry0run feature must be on all copters operating in Canada. I am sure that it won' be long before the industry follows.

  • P F Murphy
    July 20, 2011 - 08:08

    The current economic situation in the US was caused by their rush to deregulation of banks and financial institutions causing the sub-prime crisis and flooding market with derivatives that were basically worthless but rated as triple A by the rating agencies. Now we have the FAA who knew the helicopter transmission wouldn't run for 30 minutes OKing it because the possibility was extremely remote. It is now quite apparent that the possibility was not remote and there are 17 dead people. It seems to me that the FAA bears direct responsibility for those deaths having given approval of 30 minutes flight time that the pilots relied on and that was not true. It seems to me that the regulations of the US are not to be trusted and should not form the basis nor any part of any regulatory system. It seems to me that, based on the collapse of the world financial system and our 17 deaths, the American system is run, not by and for their people, but for the corporations and by their electorally-funded lackeys in their White House, House and Senate. Given this contagion from the US laws and regulations, I hope the TSB stands strong in protecting Canadians in their ordinary lives and workers as they do their part to keep our country strong and free.

  • Offshore Worker
    July 20, 2011 - 07:18

    As an offshore worker I felt the pain along with my co-workers for the loss of our friends and colleagues on Flight 491. My ongoing sympathies to the families of all those who lost their lives. Regarding the 30-minute run-dry capability...the issue with Flight 491 was that the pilots were inaccurately told that they had this 30 minutes once they received a loss of oil pressure indicator. Now that they know they only have about 10 minutes I feel "comfortable" that if the same event does happen the pilots will not try to head ashore but will try to perform a controlled landing on the water. SInce our flights offshore can be anywhere from an hour and a half to over two hours, this sought after full 30-minute run-dry capability, is only really beneficial if you are close to shore or close to a platform. For much of the flight this is not the case. I will continue to trust the professionalism of the Cougar maintenance teams and pilots in ensuring all the right decisions are made before deciding to fly and or put the helicopter down on the water in an emergency.

    • Bells
      July 20, 2011 - 22:20

      OFFSHORE WORKER - I honor your trust in the Cougar Maintenance teams and pilots to ensure all the right decisions are made before deciding to fly and or put the helicopter down on the water in an emergency...however, the evidence bears down on us every single day that there was an error made and we know it is possible now for manufacturers to make a gearbox that has 30-minute run-dry capability so why wouldnt we call upon the manufacturers to provide this for your co-workers that do not have the confidence in Cougar as you do. These families must endure the stress and worry every single time they say goodbye to their loved ones wondering if they will ever see them again or bear the heartache those 17 families did on March 12, 2009. I do agree that the issue was incorrect information given to the pilots however it was FROM THE MANUFACTURER, iam not sure how you can put your trust in these machines knowing maybe just maybe GOD FORBID something else may be missing.