HALIFAX, NS — There have been 25 occurrence reports filed with Transport Canada since Jan. 1, 2006, involving the Sikorsky S-92A model helicopter that crashed in the North Atlantic last Thursday.
All of the occurrences happened on board choppers owned by Cougar Helicopters during journeys to Newfoundland’s offshore oil platforms.
Seventeen people died in last Thursday’s crash of Cougar Helicopters flight 491, when the Sikorsky S-92A ditched in the Atlantic Ocean after declaring a mechanical problem.
A search of the Transport Canada’s online database shows occurrences before the crash, ranging in severity from minor incidents -sensor malfunctions and door problems, for instance – to a July 2006 flight where contaminants were found on sensors in the main transmission.
An introduction to the Transport Canada database, called the Civil Aviation Daily Occurrence Reporting System, says information on the site “should be treated as preliminary, unsubstantiated and subject to change.”
Margaret Harris, a nurse who worked offshore for six years, said she often heard from workers who said they felt more nervous in the Sikorsky helicopters, which Cougar began flying in 2005 along with their existing fleet of Super Pumas.
After a helicopter that was en route to the Terra Nova offshore platform declared an emergency and returned to St. John’s due to an engine problem in January 2006, a “town hall” meeting was held on the oil platform with representatives from Cougar to answer questions.
“These things (occurrences) were not rare,” Harris said. “They weren’t daily. But people were aware of them, and it made them a little bit wary.”
Sheldon Peddle, president of the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union, agreed that rig workers are apprehensive about the helicopters.
Peddle was on board the July 27, 2006 flight that was forced to make an emergency landing in St. John’s.
That landing is also documented in the Transport Canada database. It says that after the landing, mechanics found the “chip plugs” in the main transmission – electromagnets that collect steel chips – “were found to be contaminated.”
The database says the helicopter that crashed last week “declared mayday due to a main gearbox oil pressure problem.” The main gearbox comprises the link between the engines and the transmission.
Peddle said the union’s health and safety group wants to be involved in the review to determine whether Cougar’s three remaining Sikorsky S-92As – which are currently grounded – are ready to return to service.
A spokesman for Sikorsky Aircraft Corp. could not be reached for comment.
But Mike Cunningham, the lead investigator with the Transportation Safety Board on last week’s crash, said it’s far too early to conclude whether problems with the transmission played any role in the crash or whether the cause was mechanical.
The agency has been busy with the recovery of the bodies trapped in the helicopter, he said, and it hasn’t had an opportunity to examine the occurrences in the database.
He also said helicopter’s occurrence record didn’t sound that unusual.
“You could take any aircraft flying today and look into the occurrence database and find just as many occurrences for any type of machine,” he said.
“There’s always going to be mechanical issues with any kind of mechanical device. If these don’t lead to accidents, well, then, it’s nothing more than normal operations.”
Cunningham said Cougar has never had an accident before or any fatalities in more than 48,000 hours of flying in hazardous conditions.
Hank Williams, the base manager for Cougar in St. John’s, said the company had confidence in the aircraft “as a safe, reliable machine.”
“We stand by that today. And we stand by that today, that this is a safe, reliable machine until the Transportation Safety Board tells us something that will differ from that.”