THE OFFSHORE OIL AND GAS INDUSTRY IS BOOMING, and with this boom has come a substantial increase in overwater helicopter traffic. As the volume of flights has gone up, so too has the exposure of those being transported to the risks of accidents and crash-related drownings.
Many deaths in offshore accidents could have been prevented if the helicopter occupants had been properly trained for underwater escapes. "In a recent Canadian safety report, researchers found that two-thirds of those who drowned were not incapacitated by the crash," said John Heiler, chief instructor at Pro Aviation Safety Training in Surrey, British Columbia. "Meanwhile, 90 percent of those who did survive had some level of difficulty in escaping the aircraft. The sad truth is that a lot of offshore water impacts and rollovers are survivable, yet people are drowning inside the aircraft because they don’t know how to get out."
The remedy for these unnecessary losses is better and more offshore survival training. It’s a solution that helicopter operators and their clients are taking to heart.
"We are definitely seeing increased demand for water survival training," said Darren O’Sullivan, engineering director of SEFTec, a manufacturer of civilian and military helicopter underwater egress training (HUET) simulators in Carrigalene, Ireland. "A lot more oil and gas people are spending their time flying over water in helicopters, to reach their drilling and pumping facilities. To protect them, their employers are insisting that they be trained in comprehensive offshore survival techniques, as well as the crews who fly them."
The world’s military is also becoming more safety conscious about offshore flying risks, said Glenn King. He is the program manager for civil aviation training and research at Environmental Tectonics Corp.’s National Aerospace Training and Research Center in Southampton, Pa., which provides advanced survival training equipment to military clients. "National air forces are definitely aware of the preventable losses caused by helicopter offshore crashes, which is why they come to us for equipment, training and education," King said. "The days of expecting pilots to escape submerged aircraft without prior training are definitely over."
When it comes to improving offshore helicopter safety, the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organization (OPITO) is a key player. The reason: OPITO is the oil and gas industry body responsible for ensuring the quality and content of key safety and emergency training.
In January, OPITO toughened its widely-used Basic Offshore Safety Induction & Emergency Training and Further Offshore Emergency Training standards. Under the old standards, HUET trainees had to learn how to escape using windows, not emergency exits. Now that emergency breathing systems ("re-breathers") are being attached to survival suits worn during flight, occupants have more time to escape.
"Both courses have been updated to reflect today’s offshore oil and gas working environment and the safety systems which control it," explained OPITO chief executive David Doig. "The training will now include operation of emergency exits when escaping from the helicopter simulator, practical escape training using a smokehood, and increased opportunities to practice basic firefighting."
In the past, underwater escape training was pretty basic. "Someone would be belted into a suitable chair in the pool, then turned upside-down and expected to free themselves," said SEFTec’s O’Sullivan. "That, plus some training in inflating and getting into a life raft, was pretty much it."
Today, thanks to underwater emergency trainers, everything is changed. "In terms of the most valuable teaching aids, the [trainer device] is one of the best," said Doig. "These can cost in excess of $1 million and OPITO will not approve any center that does not have one. There are a number of cheaper options, but they do not provide the training exercises at a high enough level to ensure offshore workers are best prepared to respond in the event of an emergency."
"Today’s HUET trainers have accurately scaled windows, doors, and seats," added Environmental Tectonics’ King. "There’s even realistically shaped control panels, door handles, and other fittings. The reason for this realism is simple: The more accurate the simulator, the more useful the training will be in a real situation."
In the North Sea, wearing a survival suit decides whether you live or freeze to death if you end up in the water. But even in warmer climes, survival suits make a difference by providing flotation, protection, and now a limited supply of air for escapers to count on. The re-breather air can also compensate for the "cold shock" effect of being immersed in frigid waters, which constricts the person’s ability to grab a breath.
"The introduction of re-breathing equipment in April 2003 was one of the greatest advances in offshore survival training," said Doig. "By reducing breath-hold challenges, this enabled the introduction of doors and windows in the submerged escape exercises. This makes the whole learning experience greater and more in line with reality."
Before students don their survival suits and strap into HUET trainers, they receive thorough in-class training to learn what to expect. "You want people not only to know what to do, but how to cope with it," said Pro Aviation’s Heiler. "We walk participants through all stages of the procedure on dry land first. For many people, even something simple like water rushing up their nose can induce panic and disorientation. From their experience in the HUET simulator, they learn how to cope with the negative effects that this experience may produce and thus know how to react appropriately should a real situation ever occur."
This step-by-step approach extends to in-water training. Students begin by making a simple egress through the nearest window. Then they work up to doors, then escaping through a window across from them by helping that seat’s occupant out first. "In many crashes, the cabin is totally dark and the water is murky," King noted. "This is why we blindfold the trainees later on in their HUET sessions, so that they learn how to feel for the right handles and free themselves without seeing.
"The step-by-step approach is not just about learning new skills, but also managing fear and panic," Heiler observed. "When students make their first plunge, they are understandably scared. The sensation is so new and the situation is so different from what they are accustomed to. But with repeated drills and success at applying what they have learned, this panic reaction is gradually replaced by confidence."
The proof of offshore survival training’s value only occurs when helicopters ditch and people survive. So is it making a difference? Do people who have received HUET training survive more than those who don’t?
According to HART Aviation, the answer is clearly "yes." Based in Melbourne, Australia, HART provides aviation safety courses worldwide. "One example can be shown by a helicopter accident in West Africa a few years ago," the company said. "The aircraft was a Bell 212 with 12 passengers and two crewmembers aboard. According to reports, the aircraft was inadvertently flown into the sea in poor weather conditions. The blades made contact with the fuselage, the floats did not deploy, and the aircraft immediately began to sink. With one exception, the only survivors were those who had formerly attended HUET training in the North Sea. The exception was a passenger who grabbed the legs of one of the escaping passengers and went out with him. All the others reportedly drowned."
Closer to home, Heiler knows of four Pro Aviation students who attribute their survival to HUET training. "In one case, the former student was a passenger in a helicopter that went down in a local lake," Heiler said. "Having just finished the course five days before, this passenger was able to rescue himself, the pilot, and another passenger who had been incapacitated in the crash."