Will night flights to the offshore return?
On March 12, 2009, a helicopter servicing the offshore oil sector crashed off of Newfoundland killing 17 of 18 people onboard.
A Cougar helicopter sits on the tarmac at St. John’s International Airport recently. — Telegram file photo
The crash of Cougar Helicopters Flight 491, a Sikorsky S-92A aircraft, prompted a series of reviews of standards and safety protocols, including a formal inquiry into offshore helicopter safety created by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB) and led by Justice Robert Wells.
Hearings began on October 2009 and wrapped up in September 2010. During this time, Wells called for a ban on helicopter transports to and from the offshore oil fields at night.
Wells issues early recommendations from the inquiry, including a temporary ban on nighttime helicopter flights until a dedicated search and rescue (SAR) helicopter service is in place and able to go wheels up within 15-20 minutes of notification of an emergency. The CNLOPB agrees.
Wells issues 29 recommendations to improve offshore helicopter safety, encouraging a continued ban on night flights, except in cases where a committee of worker, company and regulator representatives unanimously decides to approve a flight. The CNLOPB maintains the ban on scheduling helicopter transports at night.
The CNLOPB is provided with a report by consultant Keith Gladstone of GAC Aerospace and Defence Consulting based in Ottawa, highlighting improvements to training for the helicopter service providers at Cougar since 2009 and the addition of a dedicated search and rescue team for the offshore. A representative for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP), Paul Barnes, says helicopter flights either partially or entirely at night should be allowed again.
Representatives for offshore workers — including Brian Murphy with the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, Local 2121 (now Unifor) — tell The Telegram many workers do not want night flights to return.
A CNLOPB rep tells The Telegram any decision relating to a change on night flights is "still a ways off" and no request for a change is before the Board.
The CNLOPB gets a new chairman and a new vice-chairman, Scott Tessier and Ed Williams.
Further information is submitted to the board by the offshore oil operators detailing improvements in safety supports since the night flights ban began.
Oil company representatives tell The Telegram they have decided, following consultations with offshore workers, to move ahead with requesting an extension to the flying day — a change in the night flights ban. Under the proposal put to workers, helicopters would take off and fly offshore during daylight hours, but flights would be allowed to land at night, just after dusk. It would amount to about 1.5 hours of extra flying time a day.
- Read more special articles:
- Service marks five years since Flight 491
- Five years after Flight 491
- CNLOPB details response to helicopter crashes
- Robert Wells pleased with response on helicopter safety
NDP Leader Lorraine Michael calls on the provincial government to firmly oppose any return to night flights. Natural Resources Minister Derrick Dalley responds, refusing to weigh in on the issue, pointing to the CNLOPB’s immediate jurisdiction.
Transport Canada announces new regulations coming, designed to increase safety for offshore helicopter operations. The regulations mainly cover items already in practice for offshore Newfoundland.
In Ottawa, Justice Wells is asked about helicopter safety by a committee of federal MPs looking at proposed changes to some of the laws governing the offshore oil industry.
The issue of night flights is raised. “Now, I’m not going to second guess what the CNLOPB may do. They’re going to have to make a decision on this.
“But the situation now is much more amenable, if you like, to night flights,” he says, pointing to improvements in training, equipment, and search and rescue. He also says he believes nighttime flights are more dangerous than flights in daylight.
No formal request for any change in the ban on night flights has been filed with the CNLOPB.
“While the Board is aware of operators' interest in extending the hours during which helicopters are allowed to fly, we have not received a formal proposal from them. More work and consultation are required on this matter before the Board will consider it. There is no set time frame as far as we are concerned. We are neither predisposed to nor pursuing any outcome,” reads a response from a board spokesman, to questions on the issue.
The Telelgram has been following this story for four years, one month
What we are watching for:
An application to the offshore regulator by oil companies operating offshore Newfoundland and Labrador, requesting a change to the current ban on worker transports at night.
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