Nfld. & Labrador

Chopper safety fix in 2012: oil companies

Oil companies operating in Newfoundland and Labrador say they will not comply with a 2010 order to reduce search and rescue response times to 15-20 minutes until 2012.

Companies not yet complying with Feb. 2010 response time order

A Cougar Sikorsky S-92 helicopter takes off in St. John's. (CBC)

Oil companies operating in Newfoundland and Labrador say they won’t be able to comply with an order to reduce search and rescue response times to 15-20 minutes until early 2012.

An oil industry official said a new airport hangar for search and rescue crew members to live in when they are on call must be built first before the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board order can be met.

"The availability of support infrastructure will enable the service provider, Cougar, to further reduce response times below the current 30 minutes," Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers official Paul Barnes said in an email to CBC News.

"[The hangar] is scheduled to be completed in the first quarter of 2012."

In February 2010, the C-NLOPB, which regulates the province’s offshore oil industry, ordered companies to take immediate steps to improve the safety of people flown to platforms.

The directives included an order to reduce Cougar Helicopters' search and response time from one hour to 15 or 20 minutes – something the company was already equipped to do years ago in other places where it operates – and called for a ban on flying helicopter offshore at night.

Cougar Helicopters is contracted by the oil companies to transport workers to offshore oil production platforms and provide search and rescue services for the offshore industry.

Safety improvements ordered

The changes, ordered by the C-NLOPB on Feb. 12, 2010, were prompted by preliminary recommendations from the head of the Offshore Helicopter Safety Inquiry, retired Supreme Court of Newfoundland and Labrador justice Robert Wells.

Retired judge Robert Wells oversaw an inquiry into helicopter safety off the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. (CBC)

The inquiry was set up by the board after Cougar helicopter transporting offshore oil industry workers crashed southeast of St. John’s on March 12, 2009, killing 17 people.

A Cougar search and rescue helicopter was the first chopper to arrive at the scene when Flight 491 crashed. Its crew rescued sole survivor Robert Decker.

In February 2010, after months of testimony at the inquiry, the board told oil companies they must ensure that Cougar has a helicopter ready to be in the air in 15 to 20 minutes after receiving a an emergency call during business hours and within 45 minutes at all other times.

Wells said in Feb. 2010 that he was surprised to learn that Cougar was already providing 15 to 20 minute search and rescue response times in Alaska, the North West Territories and the Gulf of Mexico.

April 2010 memo

In April 2010, CBC News obtained a letter an oil company representative sent to offshore workers earlier that month. It outlined safety improvements that had been made to offshore helicopter travel.

The letter, from Suncor Energy’s Gary Vokey, said that with the help of a S-61 Sikorsky helicopter that was brought in from Cougar Helicopters’ B.C. operation, the first response search and rescue time had been cut in half, from up to one hour to 30 minutes.

The letter went on to say that after June 1, 2010 both the S-61 and a Sikorsky S-92 will provide a 30-minute response time — almost twice as long as the 15 to 20 minutes now required by the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board.

Vokey, Suncor’s asset manager on the Terra Nova oil production platform, wrote the 30-minute response time will be maintained until a dedicated S-92 first response search and rescue airframe with auto-hover is operational.

That helicopter arrived in Nov. 2010 but its auto-hover equipment is not fully operational yet.

Until the changes were made in 2010, Cougar’s response time to a search and rescue call was one hour. None of its original three St. John’s-based helicopters was dedicated to search and rescue. One of them had to have seats removed and replaced with search and rescue equipment before responding to a call.

The Canadian military's Gander-based Cormorant search and rescue helicopters are equipped with auto-hover equipment that enables them to perform rescues at night. Cougars S-92s were not.

Auto-hover not fully approved

One of the board’s orders was for Cougar to stop night flights until the company has the auto-hover equipment necessary to perform rescues in the dark.

That equipment has still not been fully approved.

"Cougar has advised that auto-hover [equipment] was certified by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration in March 2011 and approved by Transport Canada in April 2011.Operation-specific approval is ongoing with estimated full implementation by the second quarter of 2012," Barnes told CBC News this week.

Barnes said offshore helicopters are not flying at night.

"All [offshore oil industry] operators are currently abiding by regulatory restrictions implemented last year to restrict flying to the daylight hours," said Barnes, who also said the ban on night flights is being reviewed.

"That is a decision to be made by the C-NLOPB. We understand the matter is under review," said Barnes.

Change recommended in 1985

When an S-92 helicopter dedicated solely to search and rescue is based near St. John’s, it will be the realization of a recommendation that was made by the 1985 Royal Commission into the Ocean Ranger disaster, which claimed 84 lives.

The Ocean Ranger oil rig collapsed in February 1982 in the ocean east of St. John’s during a fierce storm. The commission’s report included the following recommendation:

"That there be required a full-time search and rescue dedicated helicopter, provided by either government or industry, fully equipped to search and rescue standards, at the airport nearest to the ongoing offshore drilling operations, and that it be readily available with a trained crew able to perform all aspects of the rescue."

In the days following the 2009 Cougar disaster, Alec Hickman, the retired Supreme Court judge who led the commission, told CBC News he was surprised to learn that recommendation had not been fully implemented.

"Our recommendation was to ensure that there be a fully equipped, long-range helicopter, with a standby time of 15 minutes during daylight hours, 45 minutes during night, be stationed near the nearest airport to the Grand Banks, which obviously was St. John's," Hickman said. "I assumed that was done."