Force helicopter crews to wear helmets


The families of two pilots who died in a helicopter crash that killed 17 people off Newfoundland and Labrador last year want improved safety equipment – including mandatory helmet use – for helicopter crews flying offshore workers to the province’s oilfields.

Kate O’Brien, lawyer for the families of the Cougar Flight 491 pilots, made the argument in a July 30 submission to an inquiry into the province’s offshore helicopter safety.

In it, she notes an aviation safety advisory from the Transportation Safety Board last October on the importance of helmets for helicopter pilots.

The Flight 491 pilots were not wearing helmets at the time of the crash – and they are not mandatory under Canadian aviation regulations.

Although not fatally injured during the impact, both pilots received severe injuries due in part to striking their heads or faces against the instrument panel, said the advisory.

The Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the crash is ongoing.

Topping the families list of safety equipment improvements:

– Mandatory helmets, complete with visors, for pilots;

– Immersion suits for flight crews that meet the same standard for hypothermia protection as suits designed for helicopter passengers;

– Spray hoods on flight suits to help prevent drowning;

Pilot Matthew Davis and co-pilot Timothy Lanouette were among the 17 people who died March 12, 2009, when their helicopter plunged into the Atlantic Ocean.

It sank shortly afterward in 178 metres of water.

Prior to the crash, the Transportation Safety Board advisory estimated about 10 per cent of Cougar Helicopters pilots routinely wore helmets during flights.

It said a majority of pilots cited discomfort as the reason for not wearing them.

In addition, very few pilots had fully considered that partial incapacitation due to a head or face injury could compromise their ability to help their passengers after an accident, said the advisory.

In May 2009, Cougar implemented a cost-sharing program to increase helmet usage by pilots.

The operator stated that approximately 50 per cent of their pilots have participated thus far and they anticipate 75 per cent participation, said the advisory.

Transport Canada encouraged helmet use in an aviation safety newsletter this year – and it priced the cost of a well-equipped helmet at more than $3,000.

Helicopters are the primary means of shuttling offshore workers to oilfield platforms and rigs.

While the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board regulates the province’s oil industry, it has no jurisdiction over helicopter transportation.

Transport Canada licenses and certifies the helicopters, pilots, maintenance engineers and dispatch systems used in the province s offshore oil industry.

Unlike immersion suits for passengers, there is no Canadian standard for the suits worn by pilots flying offshore. The standard for passenger suits is under review.

J.J. Gerber, Cougar’s director of flight operations, told the inquiry in June that company pilots wear the same immersion suits worn by pilots in the Norwegian oil and gas industry.

Gerber said flight crew suits have a lower thermal protection than those worn by passengers, and are rated for six hours in the water.

He also told the inquiry that pilots, who average eight to 10 flights per week, wear the less bulky suits because it gives them more mobility and keeps the more alert.