Oversight, training at issue in talks to resume night flights off Newfoundland

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Night flights to Newfoundland’s offshore oil sites won’t resume any time soon as regulators and oil companies discuss issues that include safety oversight and the quality of pilot training.

Sean Kelly, a spokesman for the board that regulates the province’s offshore oil sector, says no decision on the contentious matter is pending and there’s no time frame for when it will be made.

Max Ruelokke, the now retired chairman for the Canada-Newfoundland and Labrador Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB), said last fall that a decision would likely be made by the end of February.

Kelly said the board’s newly appointed chairman, Scott Tessier, has not been briefed on the issue.

Hundreds of offshore workers have signed a petition against night flights, which were stopped three years ago during an inquiry into helicopter safety.

The probe was called after Cougar Flight 491 crashed in daylight off Newfoundland almost four years ago, killing 17 of 18 people on board. Faulty titanium studs that snapped off in flight, draining oil from the main gearbox, were blamed in part for the accident.

Robert Wells, the retired provincial Supreme Court judge who led the inquiry, said in his final report that he could not recommend a return to scheduled flights after dark.

“Asking passengers to fly at night adds considerable risk to that part of their work which is already the riskiest,” he wrote.

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

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

His top recommendation — to establish an offshore safety body or an autonomous division within the existing regulatory board — was supported by the province but has not been acted on by Ottawa. Federal Natural Resources Minister Joe Oliver described the idea last March as another layer of bureaucracy.

Oil companies have pushed in recent months to resume night flights. They say the flexibility in rare cases to fly in darkness would ease travel backlogs due to bad weather during short winter days.

Search and rescue improvements since the Cougar Flight 491 disaster include faster emergency response times and better equipment. Two fully equipped search and rescue helicopters can now be wheels up from St. John’s in 20 minutes, down from the previous one-hour window.

But an updated response to the board submitted by operators earlier this year suggests there are unresolved issues in their bid to resume night flights.

“Discussions between C-NLOPB and operators for the establishment of an independent safety oversight management framework … are ongoing,” it says. The regulator’s position is that the establishment of this framework, at least as it pertains to helicopter safety, will need to be in place, says the document.

The operators respond that the board should approve a return to night flying in principle, “predicated on a list of stated constraints and limitations” that Cougar helicopters would develop with the board.

“The establishment of an independent safety oversight management framework should not be viewed as a condition for the return to night flying,” they say.

Kelly said Friday the discussed framework is not about setting up a wholly separate safety agency for the offshore but is more about hiving off independent oversight within the board.

The regulator also questions whether current simulator training for pilots adequately replicates actual flying conditions at night.

“Transport Canada has approved this simulator and the training plan for use in training the Cougar pilots,” the operators respond. “Any increase in the capability of the simulator is outside the ability of Cougar to influence as the simulator is owned and operated by a third party.”

Paul Barnes, manager of Atlantic Canada for the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers, said Friday that the current full flight simulator has the highest certification offered by both Canadian and U.S. aviation authorities.