Cougar SAR-ready at St. John’s International

20-minute wheels-up time to become permanent fixture

Ashley Fitzpatrick
Published on January 5, 2012
A Sikorsky S-92 outfitted for search and rescue (SAR) activities is seen at the main Cougar hangar adjacent to St. John’s International Airport. SAR services by Cougar are set to become a mainstay, as a new hangar is completed at the airport and the SAR helicopter finds a new home there. — Photo by Joe Gibbons/The Telegram

With the completion of the new hangar at St. John’s International Airport in the coming weeks, Cougar Helicopters will have its own search and rescue (SAR) facility.

The hangar will house the already-available, dedicated SAR helicopter, providing a 24-7 service for Eastern Newfoundland and Labrador’s offshore oil projects. Two helicopters can be housed in the new “purpose-built” facility.

At any given time, the on-call Cougar SAR helicopter will have a wheels-up time of about 20 minutes, according to the operator. It will be 10 minutes faster than the current wheels-up of 30 minutes, as SAR equipment and personnel will be maintained at the hangar on standby.

SAR helicopters are specially equipped for ocean rescues — with a dual hoist and technology like forward-looking infared and night vision to help locate people in the water.

The SAR offering by Cougar for the offshore comes in response to the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, wherein Justice Robert Wells found, early in his work, a one-hour wheels-up time for helicopters involved in SAR response should be improved.

The regulator for offshore oil projects, the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (CNLOPB), issued a directive to operators on Feb. 8, 2010 stating a faster response time could be achieved by having a fully equipped SAR helicopter on standby in St. John’s whenever there are worker flights.

“The effective ‘wheels up’ time for such a SAR helicopter must be 15-20 minutes, consistent with practices in other offshore oil and gas jurisdictions. At times when worker transportation is not being undertaken a ‘wheels up’ time of 45 minutes is acceptable,” it read.

This directive was re-stated by Wells in his final report.

NDP MP Ryan Cleary, who has been closely following development of Cougar’s SAR capabilities, has told The Telegram he feels a double-standard is emerging between the private and public SAR offerings — between response times offered in the oil and gas development area offshore Eastern Newfoundland and what is available for the rest of the province.

Cougar confirmed for The Telegram it has responded to calls from the Department of Defense/Halifax-based search and rescue co-ordinators, but the service has been developed for the private oil and gas industry contractors.

“Joint Rescue and Coordination Centre (JRCC) based in Nova Scotia have in the past tasked Cougar to respond to an emergency when 103 Gander was not available,” stated a spokeswoman for Cougar.

 “In a life or death situation and if Cougar was not performing services for its customers in the oil and gas industry, in other words based on availability, Cougar Helicopters has responded.”

The Telegram has contacted the federal government for response to Cleary’s comments and will have the full story in tomorrow’s edition.