Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Transport Canada committed to mandatory wearing of life vests on float planes: Senior official says regulations are still a year or two away as department researchs which life-jackets would work best

Transport Canada remains committed to require life vests for float plane passengers almost four years after the federal transportation safety board investigating the death of six persons in a crash off Saturna Island made the recommendation, the department’s director-general of civil aviation says.

In an interview with The Vancouver Sun, Martin Eley defended the amount of time it is taking to mandate an industry-wide solution that has been adopted voluntarily for several years by some float plane operators along the B.C. coast.

“We’ve been actively working with industry to look at solutions ... what types of life-jackets that would be appropriate,” Eley said during a visit to Vancouver.

Two issues associated with mandatory life vests are the ability to get out of the airplane while wearing them and the ability to activate the vest and survive in the water.

“I believe we’re getting closer. I know we’re doing a lot of work. There are solutions out there and we’re keen to get to those as quickly as we can.”

Asked if regulations would be in place within one or two years, he said: “I’m hoping it’s certainly within that time frame. It’s not a question of procrastinating, but simply making sure we come up a solution that is both flexible ... and gives the right performance.”

When it comes to ordering better escape methods from float planes, Eley is less enthusiastic about regulatory action. Instead, Transport Canada supports industry improvements, such as pop-out windows and better door latches on de Havilland Beaver aircraft, and egress training for pilots.

“They’re certainly a good idea, but again there’s a challenge;, any solution doesn’t work for all aircraft. Obviously, a small single-engine Cessna 185 is very different from a twin-engine Otter. We’re encouraging those things, but it’s very hard to mandate when there isn’t a common solution.”

The safety board on March 17, 2011, recommended, in part, the mandatory wearing of life vests on sea planes after the Nov. 29, 2009, crash of a Seair Beaver that killed six passengers. The pilot and one passenger escaped with serious injuries, but might have perished had not two bumpers come off the sinking aircraft and served as lifebuoys until help arrived. Typically, life vests are stored folded in pockets under plane seats, where there is little or no chance that panicked passengers will grab them before they leave a plane that is filling fast with water.

Meanwhile, Transport Canada continues to resist the safety board’s recommendation for new regulations to reduce the risk of post-crash fires. In 2006, the safety board recommended Transport Canada address the issue of post-crash fires on planes under 5,700 kilograms, including requiring switches that could kill the electrical system and prevent leaking fuel from creating a deadly blaze.

Almost a decade later, the board continues to officially rate Transport Canada’s response as “unsatisfactory” — and the death toll continues.

On Aug. 16, 2013, a pilot and passenger survived the crash of an Air Nootka Beaver float plane on the Hesquiat Peninsula only to die in the ensuing fire. Four other passengers escaped with injuries.

On Oct. 27, 2011, a Northern Thunderbird Air Beechcraft King Air 100 crashed just short of Vancouver International Airport’s south runway after returning because of an oil leak. The pilot and co-pilot were badly burned and died from their injuries. The seven passengers escaped with injuries with the help of witnesses.

Eley said Canada prefers to work in concert with the U.S. on ways to reduce crashes, citing a July 2012 requirement for terrain awareness warning systems on commercial air taxi/commuter aircraft.

“We’re looking at prevention rather than survival of the crash,” he said. “There’s a wider benefit to preventing accidents.”

Transport Canada is not prepared to launch alone into the issue of solving post-crash fires on a variety of aircraft, most not made in Canada, even on a seemingly simple solution such as a battery kill switch, Eley continued.

“A kill switch has some benefits in that it cuts off the electrical system. What happens if you’re flying along and the kill switch operates so you lose all electrical power in the aircraft? It’s not just the benefits of introducing something, it’s the additional risks that you have.”

In the absence of industry-wide regulations, individual aircraft owners are discouraged from making such modifications on a voluntary basis because it can cost $12,000 to obtain the necessary engineering and Transport Canada approvals.

“Even if the particular piece works well, what is the effect on other systems on the aircraft?” Eley said. “Somebody has to do that work.”

Story and photo: http://www.vancouversun.com

Martin Eley, Director-General of Civil Aviation with Transport Canada, says his department is committed to requiring the wearing of life-jackets by people aboard floatplanes.

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