It’s a fragment of a sentence that probably reverberates more in this province than anywhere else: “a 30-minute run-dry standard for its main gear box.”
It was a basic standard for most large helicopters: the ability for the aircraft to continue flying for at least 30 minutes after lubricating oil stopped flowing in the main gearbox, the interface between a helicopter’s engine and rotors. If the gearbox seizes up during flight, the helicopter plummets.
It was also the subject of much discussion after the crash of Cougar 491 and the death of 17 passengers and crew in 2009 off St. John’s: studs failed in the S-92 aircraft’s gearbox, and oil leaked out. Sikorsky, the helicopter’s maker, had managed to get around the requirement of living up to the 30-minute standard by maintaining that the chances of an oiling failure were “extremely remote.”
Clearly, not remote enough.
After the crash, Canada’s Transportation Safety Board head, Wendy Tadros, put the board’s concerns succinctly: “We recommend that all Category A helicopters, including the S-92, should be able to fly for at least 30 minutes following a massive loss of main gearbox oil.”
Now, the federal government is in the midst of buying new military helicopters from Sikorsky — H-92 Cyclones, a military variant of the S-92 — and the 30-minute run-dry capability of the aircraft has come up again.
Because Sikorsky, in the final deal with the federal government, has managed to get the run-dry requirement wiped out. The requirement was part of the original tender that the aircraft manufacturer bid on, but has since been able to convince the federal government to drop.
But here’s a question: if Sikorsky can’t deliver on the terms of the contract, how could they win the job in the first place? Either they could meet the tender specifications, or they couldn’t.
In a national story broadcast on CBC, Defence Department spokeswoman Ashley Lemire defended the decision and described the chances of a major gearbox oil leak in a familiar way: as “very remote.”
“The Cyclone gearbox lubrication system has many safety features, including a bypass valve than can be used to isolate the gearbox case from the oil cooler in the unlikely event of an external leak, to prevent further loss of transmission oil,” Lemire said in an email.
This, for helicopters that will fly in the worst possible conditions in active military service, including weather situations that are likely to keep civilian aircraft on the ground. This, for aircraft that will be carrying Canadian soldiers and air crew, men and women we have already asked to accept great risk.
Are we learning anything from the 17 deaths on Cougar Flight 491? Or is it a case where politics trumps the safety of the “little people”?
“Very remote” doesn’t even sound as strong as “extremely remote.”
It bears repeating: it’s not remote enough.