Cougar 491 recommendations: ‘Still a long ways left to go’

It's been five years since the ill-fated flight of Cougar 491, and while some safety measures have been implemented for offshore oil workers, other recommendations have yet to be enacted.

Positive changes, but some issues unresolved 5 years after tragedy

Many, but not all, recommendations implemented in wake of Cougar 491 tragedy 6:30

It's been five years since the ill-fated flight of Cougar 491, and while some safety measures have been implemented for offshore oil workers, other recommendations have yet to be enacted.

Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the icy waters off Newfoundland's shores on March 12, 2009. Seventeen of the 18 people on board died.

"There have been some improvements, but there's still a long ways left to go," said Harold Mullowney, the deputy mayor of Bay Bulls and the brother of Cougar victim Derrick Mullowney.

"People are saying, 'It's only five years.' But the years go by so fast, and it sort of falls off the radar, and then God forbid another accident happens and it's right back in the public domain again... The time is now to get moving on some of this stuff."

TSB report issued in 2011

The Transportation Safety Board (TSB) released a report into the incident in 2011.

The TSB concluded that the primary cause of the crash was two faulty titanium studs which snapped during flight, causing oil to gush from the main gearbox.

While the helicopters were certified to be able to run for 30 minutes with a loss of gearbox oil, Flight 491 crashed within 11 minutes.

The studs have since been replaced with steel parts on Sikorsky S-92 helicopters.

"That was done very, very quickly worldwide for all S-92s,” Wendy Tadros, the chair of the TSB, told CBC News.

“So that's a very powerful change.”

2 of 4 recommendations implemented

The TSB report included four recommendations.

Two of those — prohibiting flights over rough waters that would not allow safe ditching efforts, and having emergency breathing equipment on all flights where survival suits are worn — have been implemented.

"The industry — the operators and the regulators — really got out in front on these issues in terms of safe ditching and underwater breathing apparatus,” Tadros said.

“Those were implemented on a voluntary basis in the industry on the offshore of Newfoundland, and they are now going to be coming into force and law very, very soon.”

Wendy Tadros, the chair of the Transportation Safety Board, said the board hasn't seen much progress on two of its four recommendations. (CBC)
But Tadros said the remaining two recommendations have not been enacted.

"The helicopters in this category need to have a 30-minute run dry,” she said.

There haven’t been any changes to the certification process to ensure all Category A helicopters like the S-92 can operate safely for 30 minutes following the loss of main gearbox lubricant.

Sikorsky got the "30-minute" certification based on an assumption that the chances of an oil leak were "extremely remote."

The TSB wants a change for new helicopters and for existing helicopters, something Tadros acknowledges is “tough.”

Tadros said the certification issue is even more important now, with changes to the growing oil industry in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"We're looking to the future,” she said. “We're looking to helicopter operations that may be going further afield, and we think at a bare minimum there needs to be a 30-minute run dry requirement.”

Wells inquiry report

An inquiry into helicopter safety in 2010, headed by commissioner Robert Wells, resulted in a four-volume report with 29 recommendations.

Wells said the biggest changes since the release of his report include swifter search and rescue efforts, which were previously at 45 to 50 minutes for "wheels up."

Robert Wells said that very little has been said about the 30 minute run dry since his report was released, and that the issue remains in the hands of the FAA and Sikorsky. (CBC)
"When I realized the difference between the best practices which were in the North Sea … I made the interim recommendation to get started right away in bringing our ‘wheels up’ time down to 15 to 20 minutes, which is the world standard," Wells said.

He stressed that there is now better training, fitted safety suits, underwater breathing devices, and safety forums.

But one of the issues still not resolved is the 30-minute run dry.

“If anybody needs the 30-minute run dry, or better if they can get it, it's these offshore helicopters... but we still don't have it," Wells said.

Wells said the issue remains in the hands of the Federal Aviation Administration and Sikorsky.

Another key Wells recommendation — for an independent safety regulator — has yet to be put in place.

Worker safety

Lana Payne is the Atlantic director for Unifor, the union that represents over 700 workers — two-thirds of the workers who travel offshore.

She said while many of the Wells recommendations have been implemented, communication needs to be improved between the companies and its employees.

"Throughout the world, if you look at Norway for example, workers... and unions are part of the decision-making around health and safety matters,” she said.

Lana Payne, the Atlantic director for Unifor, says communication needs to be improved between the offshore oil companies and their employees in terms of safety issues. (CBC)
“I think that in our province, we still have to push a lot to get those voices heard.”

Payne said she believes there should be an independent safety agency in place — which is one of the main recommendations from the Wells report.

"[It's] still something that we need to strive to achieve," she said.

Payne said while companies may be talking about a return to night flights, workers should also be included in those discussions.

"I think there's a lot of apprehension by workers in terms of this return to night flights discussion," she said.

"I think the only way that you can deal with that is to have a proper dialogue around it."

'A long ways left to go'

For Harold Mullowney, the issue remains a personal one. His brother Derrick was one of the 17 victims of the crash.

“It's a dangerous business,” Mullowney said. “So, we have a duty of care as a society to try and make it as safe as possible."

It's a dangerous business. So, we have a duty of care as a society to try and make it as safe as possible.- Harold Mullowney

He remains concerned about the 30-minute dry run issue, night flights, and independent oversight.

"Right now, these recommendations can sit in binders on shelves for years and be dusted off when the next tragedy occurs,” he said.

“And God forbid it probably will occur, because I can remember this very same conversation with my brother Derrick, and we'd talk about the [Ocean] Ranger from time to time. And he would say, 'We will have another one some day.' Little did he know that day was coming sooner than he thought."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.