The judge who headed an inquiry into safety issues in the Newfoundland and Labrador offshore oil industry says the Cougar Helicopters and the Canada Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board should have been more forthcoming about the near crash of an offshore oil helicopter.

"This was obviously a close call," said Justice Robert Wells on Friday.

"What I think it does point out is that it's important for any kind of close call to be publicly reported right away, so then people are not surprised two years later as they are in this case."

A Transportation Safety Board report released on Thursday revealed that the Cougar Helicopters' Flight 851 dropped 153 metres (503 feet) in 32 seconds and came within 11.5 metres (38 feet) of hitting the Atlantic Ocean on July 23, 2011.

Wells headed up the inquiry into the crash of Cougar Flight 491, which killed 17 people on March 12, 2009.

He said that despite Flight 851's close call in 2011, he thought many improvements had been made in offshore safety since his report was released on Nov. 17, 2010.

"We've come a long way," said Wells. "The safety apparatus and search and rescue capability today compared to 2009 is like chalk and cheese. Somehow this seemed to have slipped through the cracks in the reporting sense."

'Within five seconds of impact'

On July 25, 2011, two days after the helicopter incident, The Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board reported what happened in an incident bulletin at as, in part,  "an unplanned increase in pitch and altitude, followed by a decrease in altitude."

The C-NLOPB also said that Cougar was investigating the incident, and that the helicopter company had increased its training for pilots in the wake of the incident.

However, Thursday's TSB report said that the what happened to the Cougar's Sikorsky S-92A helicopter in July 2011 was much more serious than the language of the incident report suggested.

"The helicopter was basically descending through cloud and it wasn't until the flight crew saw the water that they realized the severity of the situation and applied rapid application of power to stop the descent," said Daryl Collins, a TSB investigator.

"They were within five seconds of impact before they realized what was going on."

Cockpit recording deleted

When the helicopter returned to its base St. John's International Airport, it went through maintenance at Cougar's facility. During that time the cockpit voice recorder was overwritten.

According to the TSB:

"The occurrence helicopter was equipped with a Penny & Giles MPFR, which records both FDR data and cockpit voice recorder (CVR) audio on crash-protected solid-state memory. The MPFR records 25 hours of FDR data and 2 hours of CVR data. It then overwrites itself."

"The MPFR was not immediately secured following the occurrence flight. Instead, an engine wash was carried out along with some routine maintenance tasks. It was not until after this additional work had been done on the helicopterthat the MPFR data was downloaded by Cougar Helicopters. As a result of these delays in preserving the MPFR data, all CVR data for the occurrence was overwritten. "

The report went on to say "the lack of CVR data made it difficult for investigators to analyze the actions of the flight crew during the occurrence."

The Sikorsky S-92A helicopter had just taken off from the Sea Rose floating oil platform on at about July 23, 2011 and was carrying two crew and five passengers when the incident occurred.

No one was injured and the helicopter was not damaged. 

The TSB report said the incident was likely caused by human error.

Incident not mentioned by companies in 2011

Neither Cougar, nor Husky, the operator of the Sea Rose platform, issued a statement about the incident in 2011.

Cougar only issued a statement on the incident on Thursday afternoon after the TSB report was released, saying that the company had followed the recommendations of the report.

The C-NLOPB also said it increased its training for pilots in the wake of the incident.

The Sikorsky S-92A was the same type of helicopter that crashed into the north Atlantic on March 12, 2009, killing 17 of 18 people on board.

'Very disturbing,' says widow

"It's very disturbing," said Lori Chynn, whose husband, John Pelley, died in the 2009 crash.

"It's terrifying, actually, to think that this could have happened again."

Chynn has kept in touch with her husband's colleagues and she has taken an interest in offshore safety. She said she wrote a journal entry in the summer of 2011 noting that she recalled hearing about an incident, but said she had no idea of the gravity of the situation.

'It makes me angry once again,'—Lori Chynn, widow of John Pelley, who died in a 2009 offshore helicopter crash

"It's awful. We're still talking about worker safety offshore and workers not being aware of what's going on," said Chynn. 

"It makes me angry once again and very frustrated."

Chynn said she thinks offshore workers should have access to clear and timely information about safety issues such as the one outlined in Thursday's TSB report, and workers should have a choice of air or sea transportation to offshore oil facilities.

Clearer communication needed

Lana Payne, the Atlantic director of Unifor, the union which represents offshore workers, said Thursday's TSB report is another reason why night flights to offshore platforms should not be reinstated.

"The pilot was able to kind of self-correct, but would he have been able to do that if he hadn't been able to visually see how close he was to the water, to the ocean?"

Since the 2009 offshore helicopter crash, the union has been battling with operators who have been wanting to resume night flights to and from the offshore.

Payne added that a judicial inquiry into the 2009 crash also recommended clearer communication about safety incidents in the offshore.

"That was the whole point of the inquiry, that we would know about these things."

Meanwhile, provincial NDP leader Lorraine Michael said the revelations of the TSB report are more evidence of the need of an independent offshore safety regulator.

"The government needs to be public in asking the federal government to deal with this issue and to look at having an independent authority, which means putting more resources into the whole area of safety in the offshore."

Michael said she believes a separate safety regulator would have informed the public of what happened in 2011 much sooner.