The terrifying last moments of Cougar Helicopters Flight 491 were finally described publicly Thursday by Robert Decker, the only person to survive the crash into the Atlantic that killed 15 passengers and two crew members last March.
The helicopter's flight toward the oil rigs off Newfoundland was such a routine trip for the workers aboard that after takeoff, Mr. Decker promptly fell asleep, he told an inquiry into the disaster.
He woke to find the helicopter flying lower than usual. Later, when he realized it was out of control, he saw the approaching water, but has no memory of the actual impact. When he regained consciousness, the aircraft was sinking and he managed to climb out and swim to the surface.
He attributed his escape largely to luck. "There is probably not a good reason," he said. "It could just as easily have been someone else who survived."
The 28-year-old did speculate that his odds might have been raised by his relative youth and health, his position in the helicopter and sailing experience that meant he knew how to react when thrown into cold water. He also said that crash survival training could be improved, but that the key is the safety of the helicopters themselves.
"I will not be flying offshore any more," Mr. Decker said. "But others continue to do it every day and they deserve to do it safely."
The inquiry, which is being overseen by retired Newfoundland and Labrador Supreme Court judge Robert Wells, is looking for ways to improve offshore worker safety, and will not assign blame for the crash of the Sikorsky S-92. Hearings are scheduled to resume on Nov. 16.
Here is Mr. Decker's story in his own words, which have been edited for length and clarity but are true to his testimony. His recollections appear in the sequence in which he told them.
A routine flight It was a nice clear sunny day. It was cold, light winds. Everything seemed like a regular day.
Shortly after the helicopter took off I fell asleep. I slept on most of my rides out and back. When I woke up I realized that we were lower than cruising or flying altitude. We were about 1,000 feet so I knew that we had descended.
I wasn't quite sure why and it wasn't really abnormally low for a helicopter, they can fly safely at all sorts of heights. So it didn't seem like there was much concern. Everything seemed normal. The sound was normal, the vibration level was normal. At that time I thought we were still cruising for the rig because I had been asleep for the turn towards land.
Shortly after I was woken the helicopter pilot got on the PA and they asked for everyone to [do up]their survival suits. They said that we were heading for the closest land. I can't remember if they said there was a major problem with the gearbox or if they said there was a major technical problem.
I've never had to [do up]the survival suit on a flight before, but I still wasn't concerned because everything seemed to be flying normally and everything sounded fine. Also, Cougar's very cautious, whenever there were warnings it was common that flights would go back and typically it was nothing serious.
The crash Then it was waiting and a couple of minutes after there was a call for brace. So the pilots got back on the PA and they called "brace" three times, which is a normal command. I trained for that command and it means that the helicopter is going to attempt to land.
I guess that's the first time I thought something was serious. I looked out the window and I couldn't see land, so I thought that this may mean they're going to attempt to land on the water. I grabbed the seat in front of me.
After the brace call, pretty shortly after that, the helicopter started making really weird motions. There was some deviation, the heading changed quickly from left to right. There was a high-pitched noise. The helicopter dropped and the high-pitched noise stopped and the helicopter kind of went up again. And that happened about twice.
That's when you realized something really serious was happening and I think that's why I clung to the seat ahead of me. Because to kinda get some stability.
There was nothing else after the brace until there was a call for ditching. It was pretty quickly. After those [helicopter]motions there was a call for ditch and it was almost as the helicopter was crashing.
The helicopter lost control. It instantly had the bow, or the nose, head down and it was just heading straight for the ocean. Just before it crashed, the bow came up a little bit and it turned quickly to the starboard side. I was looking out my window for most of it so I knew when we were going to hit the water.
The escape The next thing I can remember was waking up in a submerged helicopter.
The helicopter was sinking quickly, with its port side down. It was instantly filled with water. It was dark but you could see because everyone's survival suit has a light activated by the water.
There was a lot of pressure in the helicopter because [of]the water. It was really hard to operate your arms, it was hard to have any motion at all.
The next thing I instantly did was reach for my seatbelt and undo my seatbelt and I pulled myself out through the [broken]window. The window would have been directly above me because it was sinking on its side.
Then it was a long, I guess, ascent to the surface. I didn't know how deep the helicopter was, at that time I didn't know what was happening. I kind of had my hands above my head and I could look up and I could see it was getting brighter and brighter.
Eventually my arms broke the surface and I could tell that I survived.
Waiting at sea I broke the surface and, you know, instantly you're looking around trying to figure out what happened and get your bearings. And I could see helicopter debris scattered along. I could also see the two [inflated]life rafts. They seemed generally close.
I guess the sea state was between two and three metres, it's hard to tell when you're in the water. It seemed it was mostly swell. The waves seemed to be crashing over my head so I was kind of positioning myself so I could keep my head out of the water.
I tried to swim on my back towards the closest life raft, which seemed very close at some points. But at that time I knew I had pretty major injuries. I had a burst vertebrae in my back, so I instantly had a lot of pain in my chest and my back. I also had a broken sternum, a broken ankle, a dislocation of my ankle so it was quite hard to swim.
It kind of seemed like a losing battle to keep heading for the life rafts, because at some points when I was on top of the swell and the life raft was on top of the swell it almost seemed in arm's reach. But then as I fall off the swell and kind of go into the trough of the wave, or if the life raft would kind of ride down the wave, it just seemed like it was miles away. It was impossible to catch it. I guess it was driving in the wind, it was driving in the waves. It was a losing battle.
I could see the plane approaching but they were flying really high. I just continued to wave. The plane continued to fly and I guess I was hoping that they had seen me. It kept on flying but shortly after that it turned around and made another approach directly over me and it was quite low.
They tipped their wings and they were flying so low I remember smelling the exhaust from the plane. So I knew that they had seen me.
I continued to wait and I spoke to myself and sang to myself.
As the time went by my focus was much less clear. I guess I didn't know at the time but I assume it was because of my temperature and I guess I was starting to go into shock.
I continued waving and then the helicopter approached. I guess before that, though, while the plane kept flying overhead and I was kind of thinking "hmm, maybe there's a way that that plane can rescue me." And I guess I wasn't thinking as clearly, I was hoping that maybe they can throw some rope down and I can grab onto that rope and they can slow down a little bit. So obviously I wasn't thinking that clearly.
The rescue When the helicopter got on scene I knew it was a Cougar. It was quite low and you could feel the downdraft from the rotors so I knew they were just above my head.
I don't remember the order of things at that point. There was a basket that was lowered. They realized there was no way I was going to get into this. I guess the next thing I remember is seeing the rescue swimmer being lowered down.
I think I can recall him saying, "I have to go get another piece of equipment." I don't know what was happening or what he was going to get but I can remember grabbing him towards the shoulders and saying "please don't leave me here." And that's really the last thing I can remember seeing.
Then shortly after that I was winched up. I can't remember anything after that.