Commercial, Products, Public Service, Services, Training

Riding a Cougar Out to Sea

By By Ernie Stephens, Editor-at-Large | December 1, 2013
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Cougar Helicopters operates a fleet of nine Sikorsky S-92s
for offshore transport and SAR missions. Nine are based in
St. John’s, Newfoundland. Three operate from Halifax,
Nova Scotia. Photos by Ernie Stephens

Rain and poor visibility are the one-two punch that keeps most helicopter operations on the ground. But not so at Cougar Helicopters located in St. John’s, Newfoundland. On the day of my visit, the ceilings were only in the triple digits, and you couldn’t see from one end of St. John’s International Airport (YYT), where the company is headquartered, to the other. Yet, ground crews were loading passengers aboard a blue and white Sikorsky S-92 with “Cougar” emblazed on the side as if the skies were clear and blue.

Cougar, a subsidiary of British Columbia-based VIH Aviation Group, engages in just two mission types: passenger and cargo transports to offshore work sites, and search and rescue (SAR) in support of those same oil and natural gas activities. Its 300 employees do so at distances up to 255 nm off the eastern shores of Canada, often in the unfriendly weather patterns associated with the Atlantic Ocean, but never to the extent of jeopardizing safety. “We’ve been doing this work here in Newfoundland and Nova Scotia for the last 17 years under IFR, offshore conditions,” said Hank Williams, Cougar’s general manager since 2009. “There are not a lot of ‘normal’ days.”


There may not be a lot of normal weather days, but the company ensures a tremendous amount of normalcy in every other part of its operation. And that is what all of its clients pay Cougar for. Oil and natural gas operators need a constant, reliable flow of supplies and personnel in order to keep production aboard their offshore drilling rigs going 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And since surface ships are often too slow, helicopters are the preferred mode of transportation for material and workers heading to and from their 21-day deployment at sea.

With Cougar, it all begins at its terminals in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland, the latter of which occupies ramp space on the southern-most end of YYT. There, employees of Cougar’s client companies arrive with their suitcases and duffle bags, and begin a departure process that closely resembles that of a major airline.

This S-92, configured for offshore
personnel transport, has a pair of
rectangular auxiliary fuel tanks
installed beneath the windows.

Passengers report to Cougar’s agent, who enters the traveler’s name in a database that will verify that the person is scheduled to fly out that day, and to which offshore site. As a value-added service, Cougar also keeps track of the travelers’ employer-mandated water survival training to ensure it is up to date, since they cannot board the aircraft if it isn’t. (Passengers and employers are reminded well in advance when their currency is going to expire, thus minimizing surprises on departure day.)

Once cleared by the database, Cougar takes possession of their luggage, records the weight of the passenger and that luggage, and then screens both airport-style using baggage X-ray machines, metal detectors, and sometimes physical searches for items that present a hazard to the flight, or for anything specifically prohibited at the destination. Cell phones, cameras, weapons, and illicit drugs are prohibited on work sites, this kind of screening is done landside.

After the screening process, passengers enter the secure portion of the terminal. At this point, the departure experience begins to feel less like that of an airport, and more like that of a “ready room” for space flight.

Having passed the authorization and security phases, passengers report to the survival suit room. There, they are issued a bright orange, Nautilus-brand, HTS-1 survival suit that was cleaned, tested, and readied for that individual based upon the scheduling software’s notification of who would be flying out that day. The system also verifies that the wearer’s training in the proper donning and use of that suit is up to date.

Cougar’s flights are monitored in the Operational Control Center at the St. John’s
base. The screen on the left shows the locations of all aircraft and the offshore
points to which they fly.

Once each person has suited up, a Cougar employee will conduct a detailed briefing of the flight and all applicable emergency procedures, even if the entire passenger compliment already knows the information from previous flights.

As the passengers are preparing to leave, a pilot and co-pilot are on the second floor reviewing weather reports, aircraft maintenance records, manifests and flight plans. Outside, maintenance personnel and ground workers are fueling and preparing one of Cougar’s aircraft for departure.

When all is ready, and the two-person flight crew is strapped in, ground personnel escort the passengers – single file – aboard one of Cougar’s St. John’s-based Sikorsky S-92s.

The twin-engine S-92, which makes up Cougar’s fleet of nine helicopters, offers a stand-up cabin that can seat as many as 19 passengers. But the aircraft often has to trade seating capacity for one or two cabin-installed auxiliary fuel tanks that increase the aircraft’s range from 539 nm (under ideal conditions), to approximately 750 nm.

“Winds out there can get pretty strong,” said pilot Grant Mills, who joined Cougar in 2008.

“You go out there with a flight plan that’s based on all the known information,” added Evan Surge, another of Cougar’s line pilots. “But there can be a span of a 200-nm leg with no reporting station.” And unforeseen, sustained headwinds of 60 knots or more, which is common in the Atlantic, can rob the aircraft of endurance.

With daily flights into such inhospitable environments, Cougar uses a satellite-based tracking and communications system made by Blue Sky Network to monitor the status of its aircraft.

Blue Sky’s system receives pings from Cougar’s aircraft every three minutes when flying below 2,000 feet, and every five minutes above that. It then plots those positions on monitors throughout Cougar’s facilities and on handheld devices, thus giving a fairly accurate view of the location, track, speed and altitude of each asset. If, however, the aircrew becomes concerned about the safety of the flight, they can activate a “Quick Position Alert” system that will refresh their information every 15 seconds, plus instantly transmit alerts back to the base.

Once back at the base, any passengers who were picked up from sea duty are escorted to the arrivals area, where they turn in their survival gear and pick up their personal items before heading home. Meanwhile, pilots adjourn to their office area to log the flight back in, report problems to maintenance, and check the schedule for their next mission.

In the end, it’s all about safety. “When it comes to safety, if there’s ever a time you say, ‘We’re there, we don’t need to do anymore,’ you’re wrong,” warned Williams. “So, we’re constantly getting up the next day and figuring out ways we can do things safer and better.”

Related: Operator News

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