A flight suit is seen in this file photo at the Marine Institute's Offshore Safety and Survival Centre in Foxtrap. Robert Decker testified about safety deficiencies of the suits at the Wells Inquiry Thursday. Telegram file photo
Robert Decker says he'll never work offshore again, but those who do should have the right to do it safely.
"Training to escape from a crashed helicopter is important, having good survival suits is important, and having search and rescue capacity nearby is important," Decker testified Thursday at the Wells Inquiry, looking into safety issues around the March 12 Cougar Helicopter crash. "But all those things are what you need after there has been a crash into the ocean."
Decker, the 28-year-old lone survivor of the crash, pointed out several deficiencies in safety, including less- than-adequate training and issues with the flight suits he and the 17 others on board were wearing when the helicopter they were taking to the Hibernia and White Rose oilfields ditched into the ocean.
Before inquiry commissioner Robert Wells and the families of those who died in the crash, Decker answered questions about his training, which he said was beneficial, but not really sufficient.
"As good as the HUET (helicopter underwater escape training) training is, a couple of days of controlled immersions in a pool every few years is not enough to allow anyone to develop the instinctive reactions that they need to have a chance of escape in a helicopter crash like Cougar 491," he said in a prepared statement he read at the inquiry.
When questioned about the difference between actually going down in the helicopter on March 12 and the training he received, Decker testified the simulation is done in the much warmer waters of a freshwater pool without waves. He said the lights were on during the simulation, but that it was dark when the chopper started to sink - though he could see because of the emergency lights on the flight suits after the crash.
One of the things Decker credits his survival to is his years of experience ocean sailing and getting immersed in cold salt water regularly.
Decker said he completed a five-day training course in February 2006 and was required to do a two-day refresher course every three years, with the second day spent in an immersion suit in the ocean.
But in his case, he said, the weather was too cold on the second day to go out on the water, so he was granted an exception.
He testified the two kinds of survival suits worn by offshore workers during training are part of the problem.
In the immersion suit - a neoprene, more fitted suit - the seals around the neck and wrists are tighter, Decker said. And he said that's more effective in keeping someone dry.
The immersion suits are also designed so that the user can push all of the air out of the suit to prevent water getting in.
As well, the suits are used in ocean training, unlike the survival suits the passengers were wearing the day of the crash. Those flight suits are only used in pool training.
They are also more loose-fitting with built-in boots that allow people to walk more easily.
But neck of the suit doesn't seal well. Decker testified that it zips up "awkwardly" around one side of the neck. And there is no way to push the air out of the flight suit. There is a valve on those suits to help bleed the air from inside, but Decker said he wasn't trained on how to use it.
In fact, passengers were instructed not to tamper with the valve.
Decker said that water did get into his suit the day of the crash.
He testified he left the optional goggles that come with the suit under his seat, and his hands were so cold he couldn't did put on the gloves while awaiting rescue.
He also couldn't pull down the face shield.
Decker's body temperature was 28 degrees Celsius when he arrived at the hospital after being rescued from the crash site.
Decker said that when checking in for the flight to the offshore he was given the same size suit he always wore - size large.
The suits are designed to fit a variety of shapes based on what "looked to be your size," Decker said.
"The joke was these suits fit no one. One size fits no one," Decker said.
But throughout Decker's four years going back and forth offshore to monitor weather and ice conditions, he said he'd used several kinds of suit depending on the job.
Sheldon Peddle, president of the Communications Energy and Paperworkers', Local 2121 - the union representing workers on the Hibernia and Terra Nova platforms - and who works on the Hibernia platform, said after Decker's testimony that there have been concerns and complaints about the flight suit since it was brought in.
"He was underwater to fairly high depths ... taking water into the suit was probably something to be expected," Peddle said, adding that it probably contributed to Decker's hypothermic state after the rescue.
In his case, Peddle says he hasn't been able to fly back and forth from the rig since the spring because there's no flight suit to fit him. Instead, he's been travelling to the rig by ship, along with about 100 other people in the same situation.
"Everybody had a problem with the suits," he says. "I'm sure now that things will change."
Commissioner Wells also questioned Decker about comments he made about getting preferred seats on the helicopter and what that meant for his chances of escape.
Decker had said that on every flight there was a bustle trying to get certain seats on board - specifically a single seat rather than one in a bank of side-by-side seats or one near the auxilliary fuel tank.
Decker said it would be "next to impossible to escape," out a window after a crash should you have to wait and hold your breath for someone else to first unbelt themselves and then swim out through the window.
"I just can't see how this person would have a chance," Decker said, adding that there is no simulator training for sitting in the second seat.
Peddle agreed completely with Decker's sentiments, saying that even in a controlled situation it's not easy to get out of the helicopter when seated in the second seat.
"They used to do a mass abandonment drill ... and one of the problems they had was that people were getting kicked in the face and people were having a hard time getting out so they stopped doing it."
And while, there are things that can be done to make simulators more realistic, including using colder water and turning off the lights, Peddle said there's really no training that could prepare people for what happened on March 12.
"You can't really simulate the impact you don't want to injure people during training."