Nfld. & Labrador

No typical mission: Inside the Cougar offshore chopper crash rescue

A search and rescue technician who hoisted the only survivor of last month's helicopter crash off Newfoundland says he had been hoping for a far better outcome when he learned the Cougar Helicopters aircraft was in trouble.
Ian Wheeler: 'I'd be lying if I didn't say it gives you a good feeling that you could have potentially made a difference in somebody's life.' ((CBC))

A search and rescue technician who hoisted the only survivor of last month's helicopter crash off Newfoundland says he had been hoping for a far better outcome when he learned the Cougar Helicopters aircraft was in trouble.

"I fully expected to go out there and to see our aircraft sitting upright on the water — the flotation, two life-rafts and 18 scared but smiling faces happy to see us, and we were going to go out and do something really special," Ian Wheeler, the leader of Cougar's in-house search and rescue team, told CBC News.

When Wheeler arrived on the scene, he instead saw debris and two empty life-rafts — and one survivor, waiting to be rescued. Seventeen of the 18 people aboard Cougar Flight 491 were killed in the March 12 crash, which is now the subject of a Transportation Safety Board of Canada investigation.

In exclusive interviews with CBC News, Cougar officials described the rescue effort that involved saving their own.

Cougar normally supplies backup to the Canadian Forces for search and rescue operations run out of its base in Gander, in central Newfoundland. But on March 12, the base's Cormorant helicopters were involved in a training exercise in Cape Breton, so Cougar's own rescue team was pressed into service.

Robert Decker was the only passenger to survive a helicopter crash about 55 kilometres off Newfoundland's east coast. ((CBC))

Flight 491 and its two-man crew were ferrying 16 workers to two offshore oil platforms on the Grand Banks when the crew reported mechanical problems. Within minutes, the aircraft landed belly first in the ocean, about 55 kilometres southeast of St. John's.

Wheeler said the sight was unforgettable.

"When we got on scene, and looking down and seeing some of the wreckage and seeing your own colours, your own aircraft colours, and I said, 'Holy cow, this is real, this is our aircraft and we've got a really serious situation on our hands,'" he said.

Wheeler had actually seen the passengers gather at Cougar's base, near St. John's International Airport, on what "started out as a typical day." Within 40 minutes, Cougar dispatch learned of the trouble and had agreed to convert a passenger helicopter to a rescue aircraft.

'A very positive sign'

About an hour later, Wheeler was lowered into the water, near Robert Decker, 27, an ice tracker who somehow survived the crash.

"There was a wave which was a very positive sign," he said. "When I entered the water and got there, I was able to see that we had a survivor and we were going to do our absolute best to get him into the aircraft, get him cared for, get him back to hospital for treatment and assessment, and get him home."

Wheeler went down the hoist cable into two- to three-metre waves, secured Decker with a lifeline, and sent him up in his own rescue sling while he stayed — untethered — in the water.

Rick Burt credits the Cougar rescue team for ensuring Decker's survival after the crash of Flight 491. ((CBC))

Another rescuer went into the water with Allison Maher, a caterer found dead at the scene. That team was picked up by a second chopper, allowing the first chopper to rush Decker to hospital in St. John's.

Decker was released from the Health Sciences Centre last week, and is expected to make a full recovery.

Wheeler described the rescue as a team effort, and his role as a part of it. "You train for it and you do the best that you can," he said.

"You know, I'd be lying if I didn't say it gives you a good feeling that you could have potentially made a difference in somebody's life. That's special."

Rick Burt, Cougar's general manager in Newfoundland and Labrador, said the operation went flawlessly.

"If you ask them, I bet you they'll probably say, 'I did my job.' There's a lot more to it than that," Burt told CBC News.

"And because of that today, there's a young man walking around and I'm convinced of that."

Decker's family members agree. 

"They acknowledge the bravery of the entire rescue crew and in particular, the courage of Ian Wheeler, who risked his own life when he went into the water, giving his lifeline so that Robert could be saved," David Philpott, a friend of the Decker family who has been speaking on their behalf, said in a statement to CBC News.

"During the week following the accident, the family met with the crew and thanked them in person. That meeting was extremely emotional and personal, accentuated by the humility of the crew. Robert has asked to meet with the crew to thank them personally. That meeting is being arranged."