Night flights not unreasonable: industry association

Ashley Fitzpatrick
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Regulator reviewing report submitted by offshore operators

Cougar Helicopters dedicated search and rescue helicopter, Sikorsky S-92A, registration C-GIKN.
— Photo by Gary Hebbard/The Telegram

A representative for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP) says nighttime helicopter flights to and from industry installations offshore Newfoundland should be allowed again.

Flights partially or entirely at night would be “occasional,” Paul Barnes, a spokesman for CAPP in Atlantic Canada, told The Tele­gram Wednesday.

Barnes said the flights could act as a supplement to the current schedule and allow Cougar Helicopters to clear any backlog in flights that has resulted from an extended period of poor weather.

They could also, for example, allow for the immediate departure of an employee being granted compassionate leave.

Barnes said having the capability to fly at night would not mean a flood of nighttime transports. Instead, “it would be the exception to the rule.”

Prior to a halt on night flights by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), such flights made up less than 10 per cent of offshore flights, Barnes said.

The comments follow a submission on night flights from oil companies operating offshore in eastern Newfoundland — all members of the petroleum producers’ association — to the offshore regulator.

The CNLOPB is reviewing the document. A spokesman at the board said Wednesday he could not say when there might be a response.

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

The oil company’s submission

The report submitted by the offshore producers addresses eight “areas of concern” about night flights, as laid out by the team tasked with implementing the recommendations of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry.

The inquiry was launched by the regulator following the crash of Cougar Flight 491 on March 12, 2009, in which 17 people were killed after their transport flight ditched into the Atlantic Ocean at 9:56 a.m.

The implementation team, dealing with the recommendations from the inquiry, is made up of representatives from across the industry, including representatives for the oil companies and the regulator, but also technical and union reps.

As “areas of concern” — to be addressed before the board considers allowing flights at night again — the team pointed to: search and rescue response capability, search and rescue response times, helicopters ditching at night, flight simulator capability for pilot and crew training, simulator training programs, fatigue management program (for Cougar Helicopters staff), joint Cougar Helicopters and Department of National Defence search and rescue exercises and any risks associated with nocturnal bird activity.

The operators’ report tackles each subject from the perspective of the offshore operators.

Flying at night more dangerous

The oil companies 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.

“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 (helicopter manufacturer) Sikorsky have gone to extraordinary lengths to enhance the safety of its crews and passengers, be it during the day or at night.”

When it comes to flying at night, the operators stated they keep in mind an “as low as reasonably practicable” measure for risk.

Speaking to areas of concern

The report lists 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, infrared sensor and night vision goggles — in rescue scenarios at night.

Cougar Helicopters has introduced new simulator training and a search and rescue manual.

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.”

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

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

Organizations: Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board, Department of Defence Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry Cougar Flight 491 Defence Consulting

Geographic location: Newfoundland, Atlantic Canada, Atlantic Ocean Ottawa.afitzpatrick

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