Keep ban on offshore chopper night flights: lawyer

A ban on flying offshore oil industry helicopters after dark should not be lifted when a new chopper is certified for nighttime search and rescue, a labour lawyer says.
Lawyer Randell Earle represented hundreds of unionized offshore oil industry workers at an inquiry in St. John's into offshore helicopter safety. ((CBC))
A ban on flying offshore oil industry helicopters after dark should not be lifted when a new St. John's-based chopper is certified for nighttime search and rescue, said a labour lawyer Thursday.

"There are big issues with night flights that have nothing to do with the search and rescue helicopter," said Randell Earle, a lawyer for the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union local that represents hundreds of offshore oil industry workers in Newfoundland and Labrador.

"[If ] 17 or 18 people in a helicopter ditched at night, are we going to be able to get those people out with one helicopter? I don't think so."

Oil companies say Cougar, the helicopter company they contract, must be able transport offshore workers at night. They argue night flights are necessary in the winter, when there are fewer daylight hours, and at other times of year when bad weather backs up flights to production platforms hundreds of kilometers east of Newfoundland.

Night flights were banned last February after Robert Wells, who headed a helicopter safety inquiry, convinced the board that regulates the province's offshore industry to stop them.

The inquiry was established weeks after a helicopter ferrying offshore oil industry workers crashed into the ocean east of St. John's on March 12, 2009. Two pilots and 15 passengers died in the tragedy.

Robert Wells is a retired Newfoundland and Labrador judge. ((CBC))
During the inquiry, Wells, a retired Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge, learned that Cougar's helicopters didn't have equipment required for search and rescue at night.

That meant people in a helicopter that ditched in the ocean at night would have to wait more than two hours for a Canadian Forces search and rescue helicopter from Central Newfoundland or Nova Scotia to reached them.

On Thursday, an oil company lawyer speaking at the helicopter inquiry announced that Cougar now has a new S92 chopper.

Alexander MacDonald said that once that helicopter is fully certified this fall the ban on night flights should be lifted.

"First-response search and rescue can be conducted under the current operational limits relating to visibility and sea state and at night, once [the new helicopter] is approved by the Federal Aviation Administration," he said. The American agency approves helicopters originally certified in the U.S.

Wells didn't say where he stands on this issue before final oral submissions from parties with standing wrapped up on Thursday.

Wells said his report and recommendations for improving offshore helicopter safety might be completed by late September or early October.