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Offshore Notebook: Stars in the Gulf

By Pat Gray | December 1, 2007

MAN-MADE STARS, THAT IS — ARrays of electro-mechanical satellites that ingest information and spew it back to ground stations in milliseconds. They make flying and operating in remote areas not only more efficient, but a whole lot safer.

There’s an old quote that goes: "Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity, or neglect."

These words are not taken lightly by anyone who travels the oceans by helicopter. Navigation and communications take on a new dimension when radioing, "Feet wet." Yes, the "pucker factor" is a reality once the beach slides beneath an aircraft southbound over the Gulf of Mexico.

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Not too many years ago, a compass, a clock and — to a lesser degree — a map, and sometimes an automatic direction finder (ADF) receiver, were the only navigation tools available in the cockpit. Wow! We learned quickly just how big the Gulf of Mexico is.

Oh, we had some tricks available. For instance, the maps had the oil platforms marked on them and those rigs all had signs with their name and the number of the block in which they were set. (We used a U.S. Geological Survey grid system, and still do.) If you made it to Vermillion 245, there was the great white Tenneco ball to cue from. This was a huge natural-gas storage tank that was visible for miles in all directions. But like constellations in space, the exploration and production fields could be vast distances apart, as could platforms within some fields. Add a little weather and reduced visibility and you were looking at a long, strenuous day of flying.

Although efficient, were these flights safe? We had little weather information other than what dispatch came up with prior to departure. Once airborne, you could see the rain showers and thunderstorms. If they were across your flight route, you had to decide which way to deviate. Then fuel became an issue, especially if you guessed wrong. There was some radio navigation in the form of non-directional beacon (NDB) stations. These were few (I can only recall two in the entire Gulf) and were low-powered. If you did hook up with one, there was always a tracking problem. Overwater flight has few tracking features; it becomes tricky trying to figure out wind direction and velocity.

The biggest outside safety factor was the flight-following systems used by the various operators. Basically, you had to give a verbal flight plan and check in every 15 min or so. Someone at the base recorded and monitored your flight. It was a good system and is still used today in one form or another.

Those days of primitive navigation have taken a back seat to technology. The first big innovation was Long-Range Aids to Navigation, or Loran-C. At last, a pilot could fly his aircraft on a straight track from takeoff to destination. It was a wonderful navaid as long as the transmitting stations were broadcasting and your position matched up with those very low frequency (90-110 MHz) signals.

The early receiver took a lot of pre-programming prior to engine start. If you were a bit careless entering destination coordinates, you could end up embarrassed. Loran-C is a government program, still in operation serving the 48 contiguous U.S. states, their coastal areas, and parts of Alaska. Canada operates stations that cover its coastal areas, and Russian stations cover the Bearing Sea. If you want to use that service, all that is required is a receiver and antennae. Voila! You are in business.

Fast forward to today’s marvel, the mighty Global Positioning System. A constellation of 24 operating satellites that transmit one-way signals of their individual position and the precise time; it offers super reliability. These satellites are also government owned and, actually, they are cheaper to use than Loran-C. I can go down to my local sporting goods store and buy a receiver for about $100. It will tell me where I am and show me where I want to go and how to get there. Not bad for a minimal investment.

Aviation is a little bit different. When you are flying a very expensive helicopter with rate-paying souls aboard, you will have the interest of a lot more people than just you and your passengers. Start with the helicopter owners, the FAA, insurance companies, financial institutions, and, most importantly, the company to which you are contracted.

They all want to insure that the aircraft is operated in the safest mode possible. They rely on the operator to provide that safety net to the absolute best of their abilities. How do they do it? One way is to bring in a multitude of service providers who connect to even more satellites beyond the GPS system. But using such systems can be expensive. In the next column, we will look at how satellite-based navigation, communications, and tracking systems are integrated and used offshore in the Gulf. We’ll see what the capabilities of these man-made stars are and who is winning the battle for the best services available from them.

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