Many years ago, a friend and I were discussing the job prospects of joining an offshore helicopter company as line pilots. He was adamant that the only over water time he cared about logging was sitting on the commode with his monthly copy of Rotor & Wing.
As for me, I saw opportunity knocking and have logged more than 7,000 hours flying over the Gulf of Mexico spanning some 23 years. They were good years without a single worry about sharks, swimming or other ocean flying hazards. Concern, yes. But certainly not fear.
Like many helicopter pilots throughout the world, I enjoyed a sweeping variety of flying jobs during 40-plus active years sitting in the front seat of more than a few types of helicopters.
This discussion is about flying offshore in support of the oil and gas industry. I have made a list of some offshore flying hazards that I am familiar with and are recognized by most of the offshore operators.
We will examine some of the conditions that have unique impact on offshore flying.
There is no specific government weather forecasting for offshore flying in the Gulf of Mexico. Through the years, there have been several private weather services that provide custom weather briefings. The larger, better-equipped helicopters have avionics that can upload real-time radar pictures, but the old standby is still the pilot and observer reports from destination platforms. Radar cannot yet detect fog and though normal fog can be forecast rather easily, sea fog is a different story. It’s a phenomenon caused by a sudden differential temperature in the water surface and the overriding air. It is thick and persistent. Even seagulls are grounded in sea fog. Haze over water can be a serious problem leading to IFR flight even though you have the required minimum visibility.
I once flew over Vermilion Bay south of Lafayette, La. in heavy haze and the color of the sky matched the water color of the bay, making any reference to the horizon impossible. You can go on the gauges or onto the deck low level until the barrier islands come into view. Once you are far enough offshore, the water color and the sky have enough contrast to define a horizon and you can proceed at the recommended VFR altitude, even in heavy haze.
Thunderstorms are always a threat. There are many times when they move directly over the platform from which you are operating. Besides hail, lightning and heavy rain, wind is the most treacherous hazard. Most heli-decks are made of steel plates and with metal skids there is little friction to hold the aircraft in place. Non-skid paint is used on the decks and it helps to stabilize the aircraft but not up to the standards of Earth. Especially if the deck is wet.
Blades are tied down routinely the same as with onshore operations. Offshore, the entire aircraft has to be tied down at certain times such as: on platforms that allow two or more aircraft operations; if the possibility of high winds could occur; and for overnight parking. A high-risk factor comes into play relative to undoing those tie downs prior to flight. Too many times pilots have left a skid tied down and paid the price when applying takeoff power.
It can happen anywhere, but over water it takes on a more serious aspect due to lack of landing choices. Even with floats, a helicopter is not a very good substitute for a boat.
Helicopters have a few things in common with birds, but mostly, we fly in each others airspace continuously, whereas airplanes just sort of transition. There are a lot of birds around the Gulf Coast, many of them chicken size or larger. Strikes are common and some can result in major damage and injury. There is an accident involving a large helicopter with fatalities that is under current investigation by the NTSB, with bird activity being one of the suspected contributors. The photo you see (below right) is from an actual in-flight strike on another helicopter while it was turning on final to land. The mallard duck was pierced and impaled on the roof wire cutter.
Almost every platform in the Gulf has a boom-type crane affixed to the rig. They are in heavy use from sun up to sun down. Because of the tight space on the rigs, many of these cranes will impose on the heli-deck operating space. Nowadays, there are few incidents concerning helicopter operations and crane operations where they are in conflict, but it was not always so. There will be more on this later.
A work barge is not fixed to the ocean floor like a regular oil platform. It is a shallow draft barge that can be anchored over a site to do various things like laying pipe, erecting fixed platforms, digging underwater pipe ditches, etc. There is a beehive of activity aboard one, including multiple cranes in operation. Almost all have heli-decks and are supported by helicopters. Landing on one in high winds and turbulent seas can be a real experience because they bob up and down and laterally at the same time. Due to the crowded barge deck, there is usually only one way into the heli-deck and one way out, and neither is rarely directly into the wind. The pilot’s choice sometimes comes down to: Should I let the barge bang into my skids or should I bang the skids onto the deck? Either way, it is a thrill to land and take off, especially in a quartering crosswind and it takes a great deal of skill to do it smoothly.
All the platforms with heli-decks have some type of wind indicator. The preferred is a woven wind sock but some use a metal flag that can swivel with the wind direction. You would think that it would hardly be needed when you can look at the wave action as you approach, but the direction of the waves can be a false indicator. The actual wind can cut across the wave action and could be as much as 180 degrees off the perceived direction.
There are no air traffic control towers on the platforms. The pilot’s only source of information about the landing deck is the painted information thereon (and the wind indicator that is, hopefully, also visible from the heli-deck). Like runway and taxiway information, there is a painted code that can offer a great deal of information. Maximum allowable weight is a critical one. The deck can be overstressed depending on the engineering of the braces, etc. Included in this information are obstruction clearances, no hover areas, no tail rotor areas, passenger exit and entry points, aiming circles for a touchdown point and takeoff and landing directions. The allowable length of the aircraft is also stated. Due to obstructions, some platforms do not permit omnidirectional takeoffs and landings. It’s one way in and one way out. All landings offshore are not directly into the wind, meaning an offshore helicopter pilot must be extremely wind sensitive for takeoffs and landings.
A blowout is when the oil well or gas well pressure exceeds the capping capability and the product (either oil or gas) shoots wildly out of the well, usually catching fire. These incidents take place during normal well drilling and also with older wells that are being maintained. The well or drilling activity takes place at a distance measured in feet from where the helicopter deck is located. In some cases, the entire platform is destroyed along with everything on it.
Poison gas (hydrogen sulfide) is a well by-product that can sometimes accompany hydro carbon extraction and seep into the atmosphere. It is deadly but rarely encountered. All drilling companies have detectors in place, just in case. Nevertheless, it could be a hazard to helicopter pilots who work near the drillers and over crews.
It becomes necessary to vent gas off of platforms on occasion, usually for production or maintenance reasons. To keep the gas away from the platform, a long boom is installed, usually on the downwind side of the prevailing wind. The gas is pumped through this boom and sometimes ignited (called a flare), but sometimes it is not. If a helicopter were to fly through this gas and get sucked into the engines, there would be an immediate overtemp and possible damage.
Fuel can be a logistics problem. Two things that make it a hazard are availability and contamination. Fuel must be transported by work boat from the shore to the designated rig, off-loaded via crane, positioned and connected. It comes in bulk containers, usually 500 or 1,000-gallon capacity.
There are two main helicopter support functions in the Gulf, keeping in mind that there are quite a few other functions. First is the transport of personnel for crew changes and the second is field support. Oil field workers who man the platforms often work schedules of seven days on and seven days off. The larger helicopters that can carry 10-plus passengers do much of the crew changes and fly routes directly from the home base, to as far out as 200-plus miles offshore. They drop off 10 passengers and pick up 10 more to return home. They use a lot of fuel. Field support is done using the smaller helicopters. A field could be a 100-square-mile area where a customer may have as many as 10 to 35 platforms. The smaller aircraft is constantly on the move within this field and could be refueling five or more times a day. Many of the days refueling operations are “hot” refuels, or rapid refueling (RR), due to the limited number of refueling points in the Gulf and that only one helicopter at a time can take on fuel. This means that others awaiting their turn will have to circle the platform until the deck is clear.
Fuel quality and quantity are critical. There are numerous quality control inspections done daily, monthly and yearly on these fuel systems. Quantity is checked daily and the level is reported to the helicopter company via phone or radio.
Each helicopter company provides its own fuel and decides where it wants to establish refueling locations offshore. It does depend on what oil companies they have contracts with when determining these locations. Fuel consumption from the location must be monitored carefully to assure availability. It is a constant exercise to operate the offshore helicopters with minimum legal fuel so payload can be maximized. It is critical that fuel be available when the fuel stop is flight planned.
Small single-engine airplanes are used to find schooling fish, usually just off the beach. As many as five of the airplanes are stacked up directing the boats to those fish, and their attention is mostly on the fish, not the airspace. Care must be used when nearing these operations.
On a daily basis, there are at least 500 helicopters operating offshore in an area from Mobile, Ala. to Port Mansfield, Texas. This arc contains some 88 helicopter bases. A good guess is that the majority operate from the shore to about 100 miles out. Most operate below the 3,000-foot segmented circle of even/odd altitudes established by FAA guidelines. Destinations are shared by almost all of the helicopters, regardless of the helicopter operator who has a contract with a particular customer. With the exception of the towered airports on the beach, and a few company-controlled locations, the use of the VHF radio, and published procedures, is the best defense against midair collision.
There is no comparison of passenger management in helicopter operations versus airline operations. Passengers in the helicopter world have no seat assignments or boarding passes. The life vest goes on the body, not under the seat. Passengers open and close their own doors and talk to the pilot. A passenger sits in the copilot’s seat and helps the pilot look for airborne traffic. Passengers load and unload their baggage and tools. If qualified, a passenger might even refuel the helicopter.
Sometimes these do-it-yourself things go awry. An incident some years ago occurred when an experienced passenger was sitting in the copilot seat and he lodged his foot between the cyclic stub and the vertical seat wall. The helicopter crashed into the sea, but not before the passenger apologized to the pilot. The pilot survived but the passenger did not.
Tools have been thrown into spinning rotors, baggage doors have been left open or unlocked, passengers on the heli-deck have been hit by moving helicopters, and some have walked into tail rotors. In spite of being told repeatedly, there are some that insist on undoing their seat belts even before the skids are down on the deck.
How do you manage your passengers when you have to fly a very complicated and attention-demanding aircraft? Do the briefings and hand out briefing cards. Some of the oil companies have videos of how to conduct yourself around the helicopter, as do the helicopter operators.
Every large helicopter operator in the Gulf has a safety and training department that meets or exceeds FAR Part 135 requirements. What is unique here in the Gulf of Mexico, is an organization called the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC) that is an industry model for propagating safety.
Born of tragic circumstances in the 70s, (a crane/helicopter collision aboard a heli-deck with multiple fatalities), HSAC has matured into a world-class leader in open dialogue and unprecedented cooperation on safety related issues. The motto of the organization is “Safety Though Cooperation.” They meet three to four times annually in two-day work sessions, but are in continuous contact throughout the year, working to resolve issues of major concern. The knowledge and insight garnered during their sessions are put to use through communications with the entire Gulf Coast helicopter community, plus the oil producers and drillers. A key publication they use is the HSAC Recommended Procedures (RPs).
There are currently 21 RPs covering all of the hazards referred to in this article, plus additional hazards.
The amount of concentrated radio traffic in the Gulf has got to be the heaviest in the U.S., if not the world. HSAC also publishes a pilot information and frequency card. Ten pages, very small print. They make it into an accordion fold so it will fit in the pilot’s shirt pocket. You could not operate offshore without this information. The group has alliances with many government agencies such as fish and game, customs, FAA, military, mineral management and U.S. Coast Guard, all of whom attend the meetings. HSAC works closely with the Helicopter Association Intl (HAI). The single most important thing that results from HSAC activity is the implementation of their well-thought-out safety practices into the training manuals of the offshore helicopter operators.
Through the years, HSAC has developed and shared a comprehensive accident reporting and recording program referred to as an Operations and Safety Review. It is a compilation of statistics based on the types of accidents and the types of helicopters involved. Operational inputs cover passengers per day and per year, average flight duration, total hours flown by aircraft type, i.e., single engine, multi-engine, light, heavy and medium. Accident categories cover power loss, tail rotor, tie down procedures, loss of control, loose cargo, CFITW, fuel management, fuel quality, obstacle strikes, weather,
passenger control, and heli-deck design and size issues. (See chart on page 36.)
Compilation allows the safety managers of the various companies to focus in on problem areas and develop training scenarios that address those problems. The two recordable accidents in 2008 were the smallest number since the statistics were first recorded in 1984, and a milestone.
Is offshore helicopter flight more dangerous than onshore flying? I think not. It’s the same old story that we have heard again and again: procedures, procedures. As always, when the pilot departs from the established procedures and ad libs the operation, then the risk increases.
Are personnel being trained for the repeatable accident scenarios that seem to recur on a much-too-frequent basis? Interviews seem to indicate that they do. Simulators or flight training devices (FTDs) are beginning to make their mark on the Gulf Coast. Era Helicopters, of Lake Charles, La., has been employing a Frasca FTD for a while. Michael White, simulator technician for Era, said they can give the pilot human factors training by simulating scenarios such as crowded deck space, crane operations and obstructions. They can crank in actual weather conditions such as fog, haze and low clouds. Broussard, La.-based Rotorcraft Leasing Co. operates mostly single engine aircraft. Their training programs consist of computer-assisted classes and in-flight training using the helicopters. A small company, HeliWorks, Pensacola, Fla., operates four single-engine helicopters from Abbeville, La. and Beaumont, Texas. Bob Wade, the Gulf Coast manager, uses a program similar to Rotorcraft Leasing, but it differs in that they only hire well-experienced pilots with offshore backgrounds.
Flight Safety International (FSI) has opened a training facility in Lafayette, La., and is concentrating its efforts toward the Gulf Coast helicopter market. The facility manager, Amparo Calatayud, said that they have Level D simulators for the S-76 and S-92 that provide IFR training. FSI is in the process of obtaining two level 7 FTDs in Bell 407 and AS-350 configurations. They will provide the VFR training for operating in the Gulf environment.