By Pat Gray | April 1, 2009
In a past column, I talked about how the GPS tracking systems and company’s were moving into the gulf and the types of services they provided. This current bores in on how we accounted for our helicopter flights in the past and reinforces the fact that we still do it the same way, but with better equipment.
Living near Houston, Texas, I can drive to my interviews for most of the articles I write. Having traveled to Lafayette/Broussard, La. for this piece, I thought I had arrived at a different planet. Someone forgot to tell them our country is in a recession. There was so much road activity, air activity and people movement it reminded me of a disrupted fire ant mound. This is where the rubber meets the road in the domestic oil business, or, as we refer to it, the oil patch.
Nestled among the many oil and gas service companies located in Broussard (a few miles south of Lafayette airport, (LFT)) is a growing Helicopter support company named Rotorcraft Leasing Co., LLC (RLC). They are the undisputed kings of single- engine helicopter operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Rotor & Wing requested that I write a follow-up to a past article on flight tracking helicopters in the Gulf. Gerry Golden, EVP and GM of RLC agreed to allow me to observe and interview personnel in the company’s flight track room during normal flight operations. This room looks a lot like an FAA ARTCC room, sans radar.
The flight track room operates under the control of flight operations with several layers of management involved for safety and redundancy. Nikki Frederick is the hands on manager with the title of scheduling manager. She is going on her fifth year with RLC. Nikki said RLC is like a big family. She works a five and two schedule whereas almost all of the other personnel in the department work a seven days on and seven days off schedule. The seven and seven schedule is peculiar to most of the Gulf oil patch jobs including pilots. The days and the hours are long, always from sun up to sun down meaning a work week of 80-plus hours.
Due to this seven and seven work format, the radio operators are divided into two teams, an A schedule and a B schedule with five people assigned to each team, plus an operations supervisor. There are at least two other persons in the company who are qualified to operate the radio equipment and who have moved on to other jobs within the company, but can be called upon to fill in for unscheduled absences due to sickness, etc.
There are four main radio consoles in the room with a radio operator assigned to each, and one slightly different system on the operations supervisor’s desk. More about this later. All four radios are active continuously throughout the day. The fifth radio operator is a relief person, who moves about the room relieving for breaks, such as lunch.
To the uninitiated, it is absolute bedlam in the room, with closed doors and four radios plus telephones all going at once. There are four 50-inch color high-definition screens arrayed on the walls near the consoles. On an average day, RLC has 95 helicopters flying in a dispersion area from Mobile, Ala. to south of Matagorda, Texas. Each one could be making as many as 10 or more individual flight plans per day. Every flight must be monitored from before take off to the landing. A typical "call in" flight plan would be, "510RT, off Broussard, 35, East Cameron 278, 0950 with 2 and 1.9" Decoded, this is what is said: "Aircraft ID is 510RT, it departed Broussard at 8:35 a.m. en route to an oil/gas platform in the Gulf designated as East Cameron 278, he intends to land there at 9:50 a.m., he has two passengers on board and his current fuel load is good for 1.9 hours."
There are other calls to be made such as position reports required every 15 minutes of flight, or perhaps the customer wants to change the destination in flight (the plan must be re-filed and the pilot must give a compass heading to the new destination plus all the other information in the plan) and landing calls. A 15-minute position report is short but very important. It would be: "510RT, 45, 1.7". That is aircraft ID, current time and fuel remaining. The pilot’s clock time must be synchronized with the radio operator to the exact minute. Assuming he is flying two miles or more every minute and he had to go down, the exact time narrows the search area considerably. Unlike land, you cannot get out of the helicopter and walk to the nearest highway.
A very nice lady, Phyllis Broussard, a veteran flight follower working on her six year with RLC was my guide and mentor for finding order and information flow in what would appear to be organized chaos at first peek. She gave me RLC’s radio relay site map showing sites located all along the Gulf coast. There are 13 VHF relay stations, each with it’s own frequency. All flight plans are relayed to the Broussard flight track room and their radio call sign is "Broussard," not to be confused with Phyllis’s last name. That’s coincidental. Each of the four radio operators is assigned a sector that they monitor. There is some overlap, but they work it out. These people are professionals. Each and every flight plan that is received must be repeated back to the pilot for confirmation. Additionally, the plans are entered into a computer, each operator having a keyboard and monitor at their station. Once in the computer, every one who is authorized can call up the flight plans of all aircraft or a specific one. They can also be put up on the big 50-inch monitor in the flight track room.
There is a set procedure for any aircraft that misses a 15-minute check call or overdue landing call. These involve immediate radio searches on the different frequencies in the general area, diversion of other RLC aircraft, a call to the customer at the oil/gas platform of intended landing, even alerting the U.S. Coast Guard search and rescue services if needed. In a real emergency, even the other competitor companies aid in searching for a lost aircraft.
I mentioned earlier that there was an operations supervisor seated at a desk in the flight track room. During my visit Keith Taylor had the duty. Keith is a semi-retired pilot with more than 15,000 hours flying time, 5,200 logged offshore. He is hooked up to the computer and radio system and can provide back up for flight plans when needed. One of his chief jobs is to monitor offshore weather, both current and forecast.
He arrives at 5 a.m. and scans six different National Weather Service (NWS) sites located offshore, on the beach and inland. He then consolidates the information and prints out a weather update for the various out-bases RLC maintains. In addition to Broussard, the company bases aircraft at nine locations around the Gulf from Mobile Ala. to Rockport Texas with anywhere from two to 21 aircraft at each base. Keith’s weather update has to arrive at each of those bases before 6 a.m. when the base lead pilot has his morning pilot briefing. I asked Keith what improvements he would like to see in weather service reporting. He stated there were only three automated weather observation site stations in the Gulf and that the government has promised 12 to 20 more sometime in the future. With our economy the way it is, that will be a lucky happening.
Even though there is a rush to go to GPS flight tracking with Blue Sky, Sky Connect and other tracking companies, it appears that almost all of the offshore helicopter companies will stay with a manned flight following system and automated tracking will be a backup system within that framework.
Both Blue Sky and Sky Connect are part of the RLC mix and both have their computer software working along with a 50-inch high-definition monitor in the flight track operations room in Broussard. It is indeed impressive to see the large maps with the symbolic helicopters moving about the gulf. However, that voice on the other end of the radio is very assuring to a pilot 80 miles offshore, in bad weather, low on fuel and needing a place to land.