No need for higher risk of scheduled offshore night flights: safety inquiry head

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – There’s no need to schedule night flights to remote oil sites off Newfoundland and workers should be allowed to refuse to take them without penalty, says the former head of an offshore helicopter safety probe.

Robert Wells, a retired provincial Supreme Court judge, led the inquiry after Cougar Flight 491 crashed into the North Atlantic east of St. John’s in 2009, killing 17 of 18 people onboard.

In an interview Friday, he said he doesn’t support a return to scheduled night flights despite recent search and rescue improvements.

“I don’t think they should be regularly scheduled and I don’t think that’s necessary,” Wells said. “I think they should look at the circumstances on the day in question or the night in question and make a decision as to whether or not it’s safe to recommend a flight or to allow a flight.”

The Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board is considering whether to resume night flights that it restricted in February 2010 as it ordered operators to improve emergency response times and equipment.

Oil companies say they’ve made requested changes and want more flexibility to clear travel backlogs due to bad weather or other factors.

Despite the addition of two fully equipped search and rescue helicopters that can be wheels up from St. John’s in 20 minutes, Wells is against flights after dark or before sunrise.

He stressed that the decision is up to the regulatory board which must weigh the dangers.

“The real question that the C-NLOPB has to struggle with is: What is an acceptable risk?”

Wells was clear in his November 2010 inquiry report that he could not support a return to scheduled night flying.

In special cases, he said that a committee representing the regulator, oil operators, workers and the helicopter operator should decide whether to fly after dark.

“If there is a unanimity that the night flight(s) be allowed, a passenger should nevertheless be entitled to refuse to take a night flight without penalty of any kind,” he recommended. “Asking passengers to fly at night adds considerable risk to that part of their work which is already the riskiest.

“Certainly, no person who objects to flying at night should be forced to do so as a condition of employment.”

Wells reaffirmed Friday his support for that right of refusal. His report repeatedly stressed that conditions in the North Atlantic off Newfoundland, especially in winter and spring, are among the harshest in the world.

The inquiry also heard expert testimony from researchers that the survival rate when a helicopter ditches at night falls to about 40 per cent overall. That’s 30-per-cent lower than in daylight hours.

But the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, representing major oil operators off Newfoundland, says the chances of ditching are remote.

“Our position clearly is that flying at night is safe, just like it is in the daytime,” said spokesman Paul Barnes, the group’s Atlantic Canada manager.

A report submitted to the offshore regulatory board in support of the oil operators’ call for resumed night flights questioned whether the actual degree of risk can be measured.

The report by Ottawa-based Keith Gladstone of GAC – Aerospace & Defence Consulting says that research cited at the inquiry lumped together various helicopter ditchings without mention of specific conditions.

“There is no doubt that there is identified risk associated with night ditchings,” it concludes. “However, what is not clear is the degree of that risk.”

Barnes said that night flights before the 2010 restriction accounted for about 10 per cent of all trips to and from oil installations more than 300 kilometres east of St. John’s.

If regulators approve, workers will be expected to take scheduled flights that may occasionally be partly in darkness, he said.

It will be up to the board to decide how to handle any refusals by workers, he added.

Wells suggested that oil companies may add another helicopter to take more advantage of scarce daylight in fall and winter, an option that Barnes said may be discussed.

Brian Murphy, head of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union Local 2121, represents about 600 members at the Hibernia and Terra Nova sites. He said more than 300 staff have signed a petition against night flights — a campaign that workers themselves have led.

Murphy is concerned that the recommendation from Wells is being circumvented because it’s seen as too cumbersome to consult a committee, as he called for, each time a night flight is considered.

“The recommendation clearly stated that he cannot recommend flying at night.”

Murphy said that in general the union works well with the companies “but on this particular issue, we disagree.”