Robert Wells's 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.
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. In 1985, he also became the first Newfoundlander to serve as president of the Canadian Bar Association.
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. Wells led an inquiry which was tasked with probing 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.
Robert remained dedicated to that safety mission long after it ended, appearing before Parliament as a private citizen or speaking with media on the subject.