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.