Commercial, Regulatory

The Extra Mile  

By By Andrew Healey | March 1, 2010

It requires no great leap of faith to accept that the business of flying offshore oil & gas operations can be safer in some parts of the world than in others. Developing new energy resources is an ever-more challenging task and, to get the stuff out of the ground, partnerships often have to be struck with governments, national oil companies and helicopter operators who might not be as familiar with “western” standards as others. But who drives improvements in the riskier areas of production while, at the same time, monitoring standards in the more developed areas? These national oil companies? The relevant regulators? The operators? Their “big oil” customers?

The answer, to varying extents, is “all of the above,” but their efforts are coordinated by a group of 18 men and women representing the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (OGP). The main contributors to the work of the OGP Aviation Subcommittee are the oil majors—Shell, Exxon, Chevron and so on. And although it can only issue guidelines rather than impose standards, the ASC now wields significant clout in the offshore industry.

With the longest-established aviation standards division in the world, Shell takes a leading part in much of its work (see sidebar, page 42). In fact, most of its standards have been adopted chapter-and-verse by the subcommittee. While many of the smaller national oil companies (NOC) are OGP members, they are usually not involved in this particular subcommittee’s work. The group reports to the OGP’s Management committee through the Safety Committee.


The principal objective of the ASC is that oil workers flying in offshore helicopters should be at no greater risk of dying in an accident than if they were flying on vacation. With cooperation from all stakeholders, it is driving for a rate better than one fatal accident per million flying hours. The airline rate hovers around that level—and that’s globally, not just the major carriers (see table).

In the past, the committee argued, the helicopter industry had been under-funded and complacent in improving safety, and regulatory improvements had been insufficient and inconsistent. Its analysts calculated the baseline accident rate for offshore helicopter operations was 20 per million flight hours and the baseline fatal accident rate was seven per million flight hours, with both rising. Those rates cost the oil and gas industry an unacceptable number of lives—and millions of dollars—each year.

Several areas were identified for improvements in airframe design, training, management and equipment (see table). Applying all of them, Shell estimated, would cut the accident rate to 3.2 per million flight hours and the fatal accident rate to 1.1 per million flight hours. That would save the lives of more than 200 offshore oil and gas workers over 10 years.

OGP members adopted the Shell standards. In turn, they committed to paying the higher contract rates dictated by these higher design, performance, and equipment requirements.

Lower Accident Rates

The end justifies the means. Mark Stevens, Shell Aviation air safety and global projects director, says: “We have proven statistically that OGP members have a better accident rate than the oil & gas industry as a whole, and active members of the ASC maintain a still-lower one. They are more aware of the risks inherent in aviation and how to mitigate against them—even though the levels of implementation across the OGP are extremely variable.” Stevens has just finished running a small strategy review group within the ASC, which has concluded that it was relevant and supported by a reasonable suite of advice and guidance tools. “The issue, as ever, is simply one of implementation, particularly among the national oil companies. We are embarking on a process of education, which is intended to open the eyes of their senior management to the fact that if they do have an aviation operation, there is a risk.

“The danger is that a number of people have been extremely lucky—so far they haven’t had an accident. It’s only when you open the senior management’s eyes to their liability, the wider implications of having an accident—including loss of production and reputation—that you start being listened to. In certain parts of the world the national authorities, including the governments, are not as attuned to risk as we now are. National regulation is extremely limited.”

The OGP compensates for that by ensuring that its guidelines exceed most, if not all, national regulatory requirements. It spends a lot of time emphasizing the need to go the extra mile in managing and mitigating risk. “At a national oil company you don’t have that driver. Most international companies will coordinate with their partners as a matter of routine.”

By virtue of its organization, says Stevens, Shell probably does more than most, but most oil companies demand something now. “If you look at the Gulf of Mexico now for instance, you will see a totally different picture than you would have even five years ago. In large part, Super Pumas have replaced Jet Rangers. In the field of flight deck monitoring, for instance, at one point Bristow was pre-eminent but PHI is now in a very strong position.

“We’ve been banging on for years about our contract requirements and they’ve got the message that it’s not just about pleasing Shell or Exxon or whatever—they realize the benefits to themselves. It’s getting over that hump that’s the difficult bit. Once they’re over it, they’re up and running.” As a result of this drive, arguably, AgustaWestland has carved a niche with its new-generation AW139—Bristow ordered three of them at Helitech in October (two were delivered in December) and anticipates requiring scores more over the next year or so. Eurocopter’s EC155 is also well-regarded. Legacy types such as the Sikorsky S-76 and Bell 412 are now less popular offshore.

The OGP format can be particularly useful when it seeks improvements in a region where several of its members are involved. For example, if one oil company expects its people to fly only in HUMS-fitted helicopters, this may be difficult to achieve if it only contracts a few aircraft in a specific region. If its total fleet is 10 times that, there is little incentive for the operator to comply. If however, the oil companies band together to demand HUMS-fitted helicopters, then the initiative may cover 50–60 of those helicopters and be much easier to manage.

Taking Regulators to Task

Such improvements can be driven by the OGP whenever regulation is perceived as not sufficiently proactive. Stevens can identify instances during its own incident and accident investigations, where he believes regulators should have regulated, but didn’t. “One investigation we have conducted determined that helicopter simulators are not fully representative of the aircraft in certain emergency situations. Clearly, therefore, there is a danger of picking up the wrong techniques during simulator training.

“We are working to get the regulators to be more prescriptive in this area and to ensure that the flight test data and modeling used by the simulator manufacturers accurately represents the real aircraft.”

Fatal Accidents per Million Flight Hours (latest OGP analysis)
Commercial Airline: 0.9
Commuter Airline: 3.0
Offshore Helicopter: 5.7
Oil Industry (All Activity): 7.7
Seismic Operations: 21.9

While some are better than others, the offshore sector is almost at the point, believes Stevens, where the OGP acts as a de facto regulator. “The OEMs respond by and large to demands from their energy company customers. This represents a huge turnaround from the situation in its early days, when the operators and OEMs would develop the technology, the regulators would then set the standards and the oil companies would go with the operator that offered the best package. Safety was taken as a given.”

The helicopter manufacturers, on the other hand, make an effort to follow OGP guidelines—they contribute observers to the ASC, along with organizations like the European Helicopter Operators Committee. They are also now in a position to offer that same service when entering areas controlled by NOCs, if they partner with a company like Shell. Then they can persuade their new partners of the advantages of using the latest helicopters.

This communications strategy also drills down to airframe design. As the just-flown EC175 took shape, Shell was on the OEM’s customer advisory team. After the first meeting they noted several areas for improvement and, by the time they went back for second meeting, Eurocopter had changed the design.

Stevens says Shell will soon tender to upgrade to new-generation helicopters in Nigeria. “We want to get rid of AS332s and replace them with EC225s, [and] S76s with AW139s. And we’ll be doing this in cooperation with the NOC of Nigeria.

“With the OEM’s help, we can illustrate the advantages. It’s not just a question of safety. If you have your demand management—I mean your control of passenger movement—really sharp, with really good load factors and so on, and you replace old types with new ones, you can sometimes do the same job with one less airframe. So your initial start-up costs and operating costs are both lower.”

There are less tangible benefits as well. If Exxon moves into a new operating area with AW139s and its competitor on the other side of the airfield has tired old helicopters, passengers and crews in both types will be the first to comment. “People power can play a big part.”

Standards Guardians

British World War II flying ace Douglas Bader set up Shell Aircraft after leaving the Royal Air Force. The business now comprises three small divisions, including a corporate jet fleet based in Rotterdam, Houston and Calgary. An aviation consultancy group develops standards against which all Shell operations are run. It also owns and operates three S-92s based in Brunei, and owns (Bristow operates) six EC155 in Nigeria. All other air assets are through contracts. The division acts to set and maintain Shell standards, sending auditors to vet suppliers all over the world.

The third division is known as Air Safety Global Projects. It was set up about six years ago by the division’s then-director, Eric Clark, who decided that they needed the time to think more strategically; to be more proactive in the safety arena. The four-man staff now works with “everybody,” including operators, regulators and manufacturers, to address this ambition.

With the goal of one accident per million flying hours in mind, Shell now insists its employees fly in helicopters that meet the latest standards in seven categories (see table at right). They range from the latest design and performance standards, through type-specific simulator training to integration of cockpit aids like terrain and traffic warning systems.

21st Century Mils?

Shell paid for the HUMS integration on the Russian Mil 8 fleet (example shown above) at Sakhalin Island. Stevens says that, “we don’t operate anywhere else with Mils. It’s not that they’re unsafe—it’s just that they could be safer. Now the ones at Sakhalin have HUMS, push-out escape windows, four-point seat harnesses—they are a different beast altogether.

“We are looking now at upgrading these aircraft but, as with any overseas operation, there are local factors to take into account. In Sakhalin in particular, we have the issue of supporting a national helicopter manufacturer, so there’s national pride at stake. Mil has consulted with us and we will probably end up flying in the Mil-171. Indeed, now we are in discussions to make sure that, from our perspective, this helicopter is as good as it can be.”

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