Offshore operators say they’re ready for night flights

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Regulator reviewing report of work completed since helicopter inquiry

A Sikorsky S-92A helicopter. — Telegram file photo

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) is reviewing an approximately 100-page collective submission on nighttime helicopter flights from the oil companies active off Newfoundland.

The report speaks to eight “areas of concern” about night flights, as laid out by the team tasked with implementing the final recommendations of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry. The team is a compilation of representatives from across the industry, including representatives for the oil companies and the regulator, but also technical and union reps.

The inquiry was launched by the regulator following the crash of Cougar Flight 491, on March 12, 2009, wherein 17 people were killed after their transport flight ditched into the Atlantic Ocean about 35 nautical miles east of St. John's.

The latest report is a look at the subject of offshore helicopter flights at night, from the perspective of the offshore operators.

As “areas of concern,” the document addresses: search and rescue response capability; search and rescue response times; helicopter night ditching; S-92A helicopter flight simulator capability; helicopter night simulator training program; fatigue management program (for Cougar Helicopters staff); joint Cougar Helicopters/Department of National Defence search and rescue exercises and nocturnal bird activity.

In addressing these points of concern, the operators are hoping to be able to return to having night flights with passengers if they so choose.

“The CNLOPB will take the necessary time to complete a review of the report,” the board stated in a public notice Tuesday evening.

For now, “the moratorium on night flights to and from offshore installations is still in effect.”

Flying at night more dangerous

In the report, the offshore operators agree there is a higher risk for passengers in a ditching at night.

“Of course, the term ‘higher risk’ has to be put into context. When discussing the risk of survival after a night ditching in a helicopter, one has to acknowledge the risk of having to conduct a ditching in the first place. The likelihood of a ditching is remote, especially given the recent modifications made to the S92A. Therefore, when we are discussing the risk associated with night ditching survival, the value is lower than most other activities we engage in on a regular basis,” the report states.

It includes a page listing “probabilities of death” noting, for example, generally speaking, the odds of dying of stroke are one-in-23, dying from electrocution one-in-5,000 and dying from an air travel accident one-in 20,000.

“The risk associated with planned flights flown by professionals is significantly less than that driving in a car. This is not to say that every reasonable action should not be taken to reduce the risk associated with night flying and the highly improbable likelihood of night ditching. It should and it has been. Cougar and Sikorsky have gone to extraordinary lengths to enhance the safety of its crews and passengers, be it during the day or at night.”

Prior to the halt on night flights, following the crash of Cougar 491, the runs were accounting for less than 10 per cent of all flights to and from offshore installations.

“Of course, the term ‘higher risk’ has to be put into context...” — From “Final report: Return to night passenger transport operations”

“Regular passenger flights are scheduled for daylight hours, however there are occasions when a flight with a night-time component will be considered,” the operators’ report states.

These exceptions may be cases where there has been bad whether for days, delaying personnel change-over, for example.

In proposing the regulator once again allow movement of personnel at night, the operators addressed eight “areas of concern” when it comes to flying at night, keeping in mind a “as low as reasonably practicable” measure for risk.

Speaking to areas of concern

The report runs down new resources dedicated to local offshore helicopter safety, in particular as they might apply to night transfers. The focus is on Cougar Helicopters, the current operator of flights to and from the offshore.

The new Cougar Helicopters search and rescue service is highlighted. The private service has two, dedicated search and rescue helicopters with 12 pilots and 22 “rescue specialists” — trained with rescue hoists, the helicopter’s searchlight, infra-red sensor and night vision goggles — in rescue scenarios at night.

Cougar Helicopters has introduced new simulator training and a search and rescue operations manual, in response to the offshore helicopter safety inquiry recommendations.

There has been an external audit of Cougar’s search and rescue program by “The Squadron,” a group of former U.S. Coast Guard members, based in the United States. That report was not included with the operator’s submission on night flights.

Two hours has been added to simulator training sessions for pilots, focused on night flights. These sessions have qualifying standards for takeoffs, landings and emergency response, and are undertaken “up to four times per year.”

“Representatives of the CNLOPB observed the capabilities of the (flight simulator training) on 23 August 2012,” the report notes.

There has been an initial meeting between Cougar Helicopters and the Department of Defence to talk about joint protocols on search and rescue, the report states. “Cougar Helicopters has initiated contact with 103 Squadron (conducting search and rescue out of Gander) and the two organizations have agreed to discuss SAR protocols and to conduct a table top exercise. This will be the first of a continuous series of exercises that are necessary to ensure the two organizations can work together seamlessly.”

Cougar will continue to enhance its search and rescue capability, it states.

The operators state night flights would be “reintroduced in a measured manner” and that “crew and support personnel will be trained to a level to support full night operations.”

The report was compiled on behalf of the operators by Keith Gladstone, with GAC - Aerospace and Defence Consulting, based in Ottawa.

The regulator is reviewing the submission and has given no indication as to when there may be a response.

This article has been changed to correct incorrect information.

Organizations: Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, Cougar Helicopters/Department of National Defence U.S. Coast Guard Department of Defence Defence Consulting

Geographic location: Atlantic Ocean, United States, Ottawa.The

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Recent comments

  • UpTheShore
    October 10, 2012 - 20:20

    Since when does Cougar have two dedicated SAR aircraft in St. John's?? As far as I know they have one dedicated aircraft and 24/7 SAR crews and a second aircraft in the normal transport fleet that can be converted for SAR use in case of mechanical issues.

  • William Daniels
    October 10, 2012 - 14:43

    The Operators think they are ready. Isn't that wonderful. Until 100% of the Wells Inquiry recommendations are completed they shouldn't even be discussing this. The CNLOPB falls down on the job again.

  • Ashley Fitzpatrick
    October 10, 2012 - 11:01

    PLEASE NOTE: The story above is a corrected version. A previous version of this story had incorrectly stated the crash of Cougar 491 happened at night. In fact, oil pressure was lost in the aircraft's main gear box at 9:45 a.m. on the morning of March 12, 2009. The aircraft ditched at 9:56 a.m.

  • Skeeziks
    October 10, 2012 - 10:51

    Let's keep the facts straight. The crash of March 12, 2009 took place in the morning, not at night as this report indicates. And let's not forget that the biggest reason for the crash is the same one that's forcing the issue of commencing night flying: pure corporate greed. This beast so often trumps safety, and Cougar, the oil companies, manufacturers, and the regulators obviously need to be reminded of this recurring and potentially deadly trend.

    • John in Whitbourne
      October 11, 2012 - 09:49

      What page of the report lists corporate greed?

  • Rob
    October 10, 2012 - 10:43

    "wherein 17 people were killed after their transport flight ditched into the Atlantic Ocean at night." - the crash was mid morning, not at night.