March 25, 2009

Mayday: The Loss of Cougar Flight 491

The North Atlantic is one of the most dangerous seas on Earth. Waves are tumultuous, and the air currents above wreak havoc. Mammoth icebergs patrol, sinking unsinkable ships like the Titanic. Newfoundlanders out there earning a living are among the bravest men and women on the planet.

I went online after work on March 12 to see my Facebook inundated with status updates from Newfoundland friends about a helicopter incident. The chopper, essentially a flying bus, was shuttling offshore oil workers to the rigs.

On the morning of March 12th a Cougar S-92A helicopter crashed in the Atlantic ocean approximately 65 kilometers east of St. John's. Flight #491 was scheduled to drop off two contractors on the Hibernia platform and 14 employees on the SeaRose FPSO. The two-man crew reported mechanical problems with the gearbox and radioed for permission to return to St. John's.

Except for one survivor, they didn't make it. Robert Decker is still recovering in hospital as of press time.

The helicopter and bodies were recovered by the offshore supply vessel Atlantic Osprey. The chopper was on the sea floor mostly intact but with significant damage, and the tail boom was broken off and lying nearby.

On March 20, the Transportation Safety Board found a broken mounting stud. It's unknown if this is the cause, but it is suspicious. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration was prompted to call for the part to be replaced on all Sikorsky S-92A helicopters worldwide...immediately. Otherwise, they're grounded.

Sikorsky Aircraft Co. has not responded to my inquiries regarding this by press time, but I did find out through research that the corporation had been aware of problems with its mounting studs. On January 28, an alert saying that the titanium mounting studs should be replaced by steel studs on every helicopter within a year, or within 1,250 flights. If they had been faster, then 17 lives would have been spared.

According to the Canadian Press, there have been 25 occurrence reports filed with Transport Canada since Jan. 1, 2006, involving the S-92A model. Rig workers are understandably apprehensive about flying on this model. All of the occurrences happened on board choppers owned by Cougar Helicopters during journeys to Newfoundland's offshore oil platforms.

I commend Cougar's sensitivity during this difficult time, but the 25 previous incidents concern me.

This tragedy has been compared to the Ocean Ranger disaster in 1982. The Ocean Ranger was an early oil rig that toppled over during a stormy night with the loss of 84 lives. Safety recommendations based on that incident have not been implemented. Why?

As I read the names of the deceased, I note that they're from every corner of Newfoundland and from Nova Scotia, B.C. and from Fort Saskatchewan.

Newfoundlanders attended a multi-denominational service at the Roman Catholic Basilica of St. John the Baptist on March 18. It was a moving ceremony attended by over 1800, and demonstrated to the nation our unique sense of community.

I personally am not connected to any of the deceased, but perhaps some of you are.

Remember them dear readers.