The main hangar at Cougar Helicopters in St. John’s is known as “the barn.” It is home to five Sikorsky S-92 helicopters that service Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil industry .
This week, in a boardroom inside the Cougar building alongside St. John’s International Airport, three representatives from Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. and one representative from Cougar sat down with The Telegram to discuss the future of the S-92 in this province.
The S-92 is the same model as the helicopter that went down in Cougar Flight 491, on March 12, 2009.
Of the 18 people on board that flight, 17 died.
The Sikorsky representatives said they were in St. John’s as a result of that crash —more specifically, as a result of the criticisms of the S-92 since.
They were asked to come here from Sikorsky’s home in Connecticut to meet with worker representatives from the joint occupational health and safety (JOSH) committees of Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil installations.
That meeting took place earlier in the day.
It was not open to the media, but it allowed for a frank question-and-answer period between the helicopter’s developers and the JOSH committee representatives, said Paul Jackson, Sikorsky’s director
of communications and Hank Williams, Cougar’s general manager for Canada’s East Coast.
“This was an opportunity for us to come and talk directly, face-to-face, with some of the people who actually operate, fly, maintain our helicopters,” Jackson said.
Improvements made to components
“One of the big points we wanted to make today is if it’s safety you’re really worried about, you have to look at the entire aircraft. From tip to tail. Not just one part of it. The S-92 is the only helicopter in its class that’s certified to the most stringent safety standards.”
Senior program manager for the S-92, Spencer Elani pointed to the helicopter’s flaw-tolerant components and “crashworthiness.” He also walked through the changes made to the helicopter in recent years in the name of safety.
In 2009, following the crash of Cougar 491, a two-piece filter bowl was introduced for the main gearbox to avoid a loss of gearbox oil, as had been found to have happened during Cougar 491.
In the same year, “next-generation” chip detectors were added to the aircraft with the idea to give pilots more time to react to emerging issues.
In 2010 came the failed pump sensor. “There are a lot of redundancy in the S-92 by design. So if you lose a pump, for instance, there’s two of them. You could still operate and you could run it through the oil cooler. But if pressure goes low, you don’t know if it’s the pump or you don’t know if you have a leak in the cooler. So we’ve given indication in the cockpit, so you can differentiate,” Elani said.
“There’s been a lot of sensors, a lot of indicators, come into the cockpit to give (pilots) more direction.”
Changes to cockpit warning lights and indicators have been documented in an updated flight manual.
Meanwhile, 2010 also brought the so-called “Phase II” main gearbox assembly, as a step to introduction of the “Phase III” earlier this year. The new gearbox assembly provides a stronger housing with larger bolts, Elani said. It is expected to address cracking in the foot mountings that attach the helicopter’s main gearbox to the fuselage, as noted in 2010 by the U.S. Federal Aviation Authority.
To that, “Sikorsky’s going around and actually retrofitting all our customers. We’re doing the actual drilling for them on the air frame with certified crews that have been trained by Sikorsky. We’re about 43 per cent through the fleet,” Elani said.
Cougar has already begun the work for its S-92s. “We have three of our fleet done and number four is going back there in January and mid-February all of our fleet will have phase three gear boxes,” Williams said.
“The other thing is we’re designing a new filter element to have longer life,” Elani said, adding that can be expected in the very near future. It is expected to reduce required filter changes.
NDP MHA for St. John’s North, Dale Kirby, has said the continued use of Sikorsky S-92 helicopters for servicing the offshore is “reckless.” Others have similarly objected to continued use of the aircraft offshore Newfoundland and Labrador.
The vice-president and general manager of Sikorsky Global Helicopters, Ed Beyer, was asked if he felt the S-92 is in fact the best option for ferrying workers offshore in this province, considering the distance being covered and the conditions involved.
“I would say absolutely,” he said.
Currently, 152 Sikorsky S-92 helicopters are being used by operators in 24 countries around the world.
The aircraft has more than 360,000 combined flight hours.
The operators of S-92 helicopters have put them to a variety of tasks, in addition to ferrying workers to offshore oil fields. Most recently, S-92s were purchased for use by the Japan National Police in law enforcement operations. In Ireland, the coast guard will use S-92s in the new year for its work.
“It’s enjoying really good customer acceptance because of its capabilities — its range and also the technologies that you get in this airplane,” Beyer said.
“The one other area is Head of State,” Elani added.
“We have this aircraft all over the world, most recently in Thailand, for their king. But it’s presidents, prime ministers — heads of state (that) are flying in the S92.”
Asked for its position on the S-92, Transport Canada has stated, “the Transport Canada validation process verifies that the aircraft is safe for flight.”
The Telegram asked if the company men felt there has been an unfair focus on S-92 operations as a result of the crash of Cougar Flight 491.
“I would say it hasn’t been very balanced. And I say that as a former journalist of almost 30 years,” Jackson said.
“Certainly, that accident was a tragedy, for Cougar, for this entire community and for us, too. And everybody will mourn that forever.”
He then went searching for the same words his colleagues had sought throughout the interview — the words that would state the position of the company without, if at all possible, setting off a firestorm of backlash.
“That is the only fatal accident ever in the ’92,” he said. “I’m not bragging about that. You don’t brag about those things... It’s just a factual statement.”