Changing legislation ‘certainly our hope,’ says helicopter crash investigator

It’s been three years, but the Transportation Safety Board of Canada’s investigation into a fatal helicopter crash near Resolute Bay in April 2021 has finally yielded findings that the agency hopes will be adopted into industry best-practices going forward.

Investigator-in-charge Daryl Collins spoke about the four recommendations made to Transport Canada as a result of the inquiry into the crash on a hill on Griffith’s Island, 20 kilometres south of Resolute Bay that resulted in the deaths of two crew members and a marine biologist.

The site of the crash is well-known among the flying community as a trouble spot for whiteouts and other weather-related changes in flying conditions. These sorts of accidents are too frequent an occurrence in Northern communities.

“One of the big challenges of flying in the North, particularly into the winter, is that there is very little to help pilots in terms of markers, especially in barren areas” said Collins.

According to the official Transportation Safety Board (TSB) report, “the helicopter was destroyed, and a post-impact fire consumed much of the fuselage area. The emergency locator transmitter was destroyed during the impact sequence and did not transmit a distress signal. There were no survivors.

“In addition to the circumstances that most likely led to the collision with terrain resulting from a loss of visual references in flat light and whiteout conditions, the investigation examined the factors that likely influenced the pilot’s decision-making process.”

Collins explained “flat light” as sunlight diffused through clouds to the point where there’s no contrast between snow and sky. As a result, pilots cannot determine their height off the ground. Also adding in other environmental factors like snow squalls, it makes “it nearly impossible to see,” Collins said. “It’s important for the pilot to to tell how high they are above ground, and how fast they are driving.”

He describes the experience in terms most Canadians can understand, like “driving on a highway during a snowstorm. Obviously, if you’re flying, the problem is even more significant… the only option is to switch to flight instruments.”

The TSB’s first recommendation would target “the skills that pilots need to recover from a situation like that…”

The agency wants companies to ensure that pilots have all the skills need to revert to their flight instruments when they encounter such disorienting conditions. Currently, pilots try to maintain visibility by looking outside, which can be flawed.

Rely on technology

The TSB’s second recommendation is that helicopter pilots utilize technology that will assist them in disorienting conditions, such as a radar altimeter or a low-altitude alert, which would inform them when they are unknowingly descending.

“That’s a critical piece [of this issue]” said Collins. “It could give you that last-chance warning, saying you’re descending… there was no means of alerting this pilot [on the fatal flight near Resolute Bay] of his descent or that he was rapidly approaching the ground.”

The first two TSB recommendations are not new. The agency has been calling on Transport Canada to legislate such regulations into effect for the past three decades.

The third recommendation calls on all operators conducting single-pilot helicopter operations, whether commercial or private, “to develop standard operating procedures (SOPs) based on corporate knowledge and industry best practices to support pilot decision-making.” This is currently the standard practice of any multi-crew aircraft flight, but for some reason individual helicopter operations do not have to meet the same requirements.

“SOPs are the best way of doing things,” explains Collins, “because they are particularly useful for less experienced pilots.”

The fourth TSB recommendation would specifically target a particular group of visual helicopter pilots who are authorized to fly below the normal prescribed limit — one mile — usually in uncontrolled (unmonitored or low-level remote) airspace. The recommendation would require these operators to have “the same defences in place as their airplane counterparts. In Canada… despite the fact that the TSB has determined that helicopter accidents are more than twice as likely to involve a loss of visual reference than airplane accidents, training is less stringent for helicopter [pilots]. We are asking for an acceptable level of protection,” Collins explained.

Awaiting government response

In regards to the three years it took to finalize these recommendations, Collins said, “We did an enormous amount of research,” although the first two are reiterations of previous TSB pleas for standardization.

The potential for legislation by the federal government is “certainly our hope, but that’s up to Transport Canada… so we are anxiously awaiting their response,” Collins said.

Transport Canada is required by law to respond within 90 days of the release of the report. However, “a response doesn’t ensure that they’re going to do anything. Things don’t happen overnight [in government] with [the enacting] of regulations,” concludes Collins. Ultimately, “We’re hoping for a clear road map on implementing these changes.”

Kira Wronska Dorward, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Nunavut News