A tragic helicopter crash in northern B.C. on Monday has spurred calls from the industry to stiffen federal regulations.
The association that represents Canadian helicopter operators claims industry members currently go above and beyond Transport Canada rules, and says the government needs to “catch up.”
The comments come as efforts come to recover the bodies of three people killed when a heli-ski chopper went down in the mountains north of Terrace, injuring four others.
Heli-ski operations are already highly regulated under Transport Canada and various provincial authorities.
But the Helicopter Association of Canada wants to see more from Ottawa.
“Our members have found it beneficial to go above and beyond the standards as regulated by Transport Canada. We’ve been doing this for a number of years, I would say decades,” association president and CEO Trevor Mitchell said.
Mitchell pointed to protocols known as Safety Management Systems (SMS), a constantly evolving set of best practices considered the global standard in proactive safety practices.
He said the industry has been pressing federal regulators for those protocols to be applied to its sector of aviation.
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“Our industry has been waiting for these for 16 years and they still haven’t been put in play. But many of our members, if not all of our members, have independently instituted those safety programs,” he said.
“We still expect the federal government to catch up to industry at some point in time. We are hearing now maybe two to five years they will have these regulations in play for the rest of the industry stakeholders, but many of the helicopter operators have already taken this upon themselves.”
Transport Canada was unable to respond to the issue by deadline.
According to the agency’s website, SMS protocols were implemented in 2008 and 2009 for airports, air navigation services providers and the country’s largest passenger air carriers. It said the agency was conducting an assessment before putting SMS requirements, which exceed pre-existing safety regulations, in place for other sectors.
Despite the call for stiffer regulations, those in the industry stress that crashes of this nature remain few and far between.
“It’s very rare. I mean, our data is we’ve only had four other fatal helicopter crashes in the 60 years that the industry has been around,” said Ross Cloutier, executive director of Helicat Canada.
“These pilots have, you know, thousands of hours of experience in the mountains.”
“This should not be viewed as a black mark on the helicopter industry in Canada,” he said.
“I think the Canadian public and stakeholders in our industry can rest assured we are one of the safest modes of air transport in Canada.”
Meanwhile, the Transportation Safety Board continues to investigate the crash, a process expected to take many weeks or even months.
Conditions in the area remain a challenge, with freezing rain and harsh winter weather hindering search and recovery efforts.
“Mountain weather is very fickle,” said Evan Stevens, assistant technical director at the Association of Canadian Mountain Guides.
“We’re talking about winter conditions with snow and avalanches. Things can change quickly — temperature changes, precipitation type changes, wind speed, directions, sun.”
The family of one of the Italian men injured in the crash has also released an update.
“Emilio was found conscious and was able to state his generalities. He is able to move fingers and toes. Legs, hip and ribs are broken. He suffered an injury also on his upper spine,” the family of Emilio Zierock said in a statement.
“We hope for the best.”
Northern Escape Heli Skiing, the company that operated the crashed aircraft, has suspended operations while the investigation proceeds and in support of staff and victims.
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