Robert Wells, judge who led inquiry on offshore helicopter safety, dead at 87

·4 min read

Robert Wells, whose career shifted from law to politics to leading the public inquiry in the wake of the Cougar Flight 491 helicopter crash that helped bring about a massive shift in safety for offshore helicopter operations, has died at the age of 87.

Wells's son, Sen. David Wells, said Thursday night that his father had died at the Health Sciences Centre in St. John's.

"We are all proud of his lifetime of service," Wells said in a Twitter post.

Tributes came pouring in after the announcement, both publicly online and in private notes, David Wells said, in a volume that was both overwhelming and united in painting a picture of a man who spent decades committed to public service.

"The messages, while they're all different, the theme is the same. About how he contributed to not just the province, but the country, with respect to his work in the offshore, his political work, his legal career and and the people he touched in many walks of life," Wells told CBC News Friday.

His father's life was marked with distinction from his early years. Wells became a Rhodes Scholar upon graduating Memorial University in 1953, earning his law degree from Oxford University.

Returning to St. John's, Wells put that degree to work, first as a lawyer, in criminal and civil practice as well as a Crown attorney.

He then was appointed as a Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court Justice, a position he held for 22 years.

During his career he also found time for politics, twice serving as an MHA for the Progressive Conservatives in the 1970s. Flags at Confederation Building flew at half-mast in his honour Friday.

In 1985, he also became the first — and to this day, only — Newfoundlander to serve as president of the Canadian Bar Association.

He was famous for his work ethic, said David Wells, a trait he said he and his brother and sisters absorbed "by osmosis" into their own lives.

"He always wanted to contribute to the province and to his country, and he did that. And we're all proud of him for that. It's a great legacy," Wells said.


Dedication to chopper safety

It was in the wake of his retirement from the supreme court that Robert Wells took on what became perhaps his highest profile role and a major part of that legacy, brought about by one of Newfoundland and Labrador's greatest tragedies.

On March 12, 2009, Cougar Flight 491, a helicopter bound for offshore oil platforms, crashed into the icy Atlantic ocean, killing 17 of the 18 people on board.

Out of the massive outpouring of grief and shock that remains etched in the provincial consciousness to this day rose an inquiry by the Canada-Newfoundland Offshore Petroleum Board (C-NLOPB) with Wells named as commissioner.

Peter Cowan/CBC
Peter Cowan/CBC

The inquiry was tasked to probe current helicopter safety practices and make recommendations for improvement.

Wells's final report, along with the Transportation Safety Board's own investigation, helped push through a series of changes in helicopter safety, from a swifter search and rescue response, to better training to underwater breathing devices for all those on board. It took nearly an hour for a search helicopter to take to the air after the crash of Flight 491, and in 2014 Wells said that time had been lowered to 20 minutes.

"He had the opportunity to to take all his wisdom and learning from his whole career, and I think that showed in his report and the effect that it had on safety in the offshore," David Wells said.

He remained dedicated to that safety mission long after it ended, appearing before Parliament as a private citizen or speaking with media on the subject.

"He wanted to do active follow up to ensure that became part of Newfoundland and Labrador's offshore legacy," said Wells.

"Because it's not resource management, that's the most important. It's not the environment, that's the most important. It's not industrial benefit that's the most important. It's the safety of the workers, that's the most important."

The majority of Wells's recommendations were adopted, save one key item he continued to fight for long after the inquiry concluded: an independent safety agency to oversee the offshore, apart from the C-NLOPB.

Four years after the report, he even appeared before the Senate in 2014, in a meeting that included his son, to press for change.

"We had a conversation, a public conversation about it. We were on different sides of the fence on that. But that was the model that he thought would work," said Wells.

The matter of the agency was referred from the C-NLOPB to the federal government, and never implemented.

"While his candour and commitment will be greatly missed, his accomplishments established an enduring legacy," Charlene Johnson, the CEO of the Newfoundland and Labrador Oil and Gas Industries Association, said in a statement.

Premier Andrew Furey also gave his condolences. "I was deeply inspired by his commitment to public service and his compassion for others," he said.

Wells passed away Wednesday, leaving behind his wife, five children, two stepchildren, 12 grandchildren and numerous other friends and family.

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador