The 0/3481 Deepwater Horizon NOTAM encompasses a huge chunk of airspace that covers the coast lines of four states and has been put in place to protect fliers of all kinds of aerial vehicles and their passengers. There have been NOTAMs and even temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) in the gulf in past years, but nothing to compare with this one. The mother of all TFRs, if you will.
NOTAMs aside, during a crisis of this magnitude, safety can only be realized through cooperation of the many agencies wanting access to the airspace—in this case, the U.S. Coast Guard, the Air Force, the FAA, news media, British Petroleum, contract helicopter operators, wildlife agencies (federal and state), EPA, the Minerals Management agency, airplane dispersal companies, fish spotters, even casual observers out for a Sunday lark. Once the NOTAM was put in place, and due to its complexity, it was logical to call a meeting of the airspace users to go over the specifications contained in the document and answer questions. The Coast Guard/FAA did this. They also solicited suggestions to improve procedures and made everyone feel they were part of the program.
As an example, Vern Albert of Albert and Associates, who is a longtime aviation expert, especially for Gulf of Mexico operations, was added as a temporary consultant to BP’s staff to help coordinate the chemical dispersant airplanes—mostly DC-3 and C-130s—to prevent mixing up propellers and rotors while airborne. He said there have been some near misses but nothing of consequence.
The Coast Guard (also referred to as the incident commander) is the designated emergency response coordinator and is in charge of almost all activity centered on the spill, including containment, removal and dispersal operations. In order to keep congestion to a minimum they have provided a P3 Orion surveillance aircraft that stays in the air during daylight hours. This aircraft is operated by the U.S. Customs Service. Using the call sign “Omaha 99” they are able to clear low level routes for the dispersal aircraft that include an Air Force C-130 and a number of DC-3 spray planes. Discreet Mode 3 transponder codes are also assigned to the many helicopters operating in the TFR, allowing Omaha 99 to differentiate between the authorized flights, transitioning aircraft and of course, unauthorized flights. Why the surveillance aircraft? Onshore radar from ATC does not have the necessary coverage for the low-level flying needed in this operating area. The approach control and enroute radars can give some coverage from 3,000 feet upward, but below that they are pretty much blind.
By far, the commercial helicopter operators are the prime movers for most of this activity. Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI) is the primary contractor, having had the BP contract for several years. The major oil companies usually write contracts to cover a five-year span. Due to the large demand for helicopter flights by all the concerned agencies, BP is chartering the other Part 135 helicopter operators who regularly fly in the Gulf to handle this overload. BP is picking up the tab for all flights directly related to the oil spill.
Houma La., a bayou town located about 50 miles south of New Orleans, is the hub for all of the spill activity. BP has set up a command and control center at its huge training and warehouse facility just north of the city, where everything connected to the disaster is coordinated. This includes claims, training, water vessel chartering, jobs, volunteers, wildlife activity and supporting helicopter flights. Though approval for revenue flights is given here, the helicopters are launched from the Houma airport or from several shore bases such as Grand Isle, Fourchon and Venice, all located very close to the beach and near the ruptured well in Mississippi Canyon block 252. You can also expect a migration of these bases further to the east as the oil spill continues its eastern movement. Operating bases will probably be in Pascagoula, Miss., Mobile, Ala. and Pensacola Fla., possibly all the way to Tampa.
Because of the mix of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft, separation requirements become more pronounced in the heavily trafficked areas of the TFR. As mentioned, Mode 3A transponder codes are assigned to all aircraft participating in the recovery efforts. These codes are provided by the Coast Guard/FAA through Houma Air Operations Center. When the pilots make a request to enter the work areas, they are assigned a code for that specific area. This allows them freedom of movement within the TFR. Those helicopters on routine oil industry support flights are to remain at 1,500 feet when in the TFR and can transition to landing when within two nautical miles of their destination. All fixed-wing aircraft are to remain at 1,000 feet or higher. The exception is the dispersal airplanes that operate near the surface.
New NOTAMs are issued almost daily. A recent one concerned another P3 Orion being used by the EPA to take air samples as close as 200 feet above the water. That’s a big airplane and its operation in low-level “helicopter” airspace can be a bit unsettling to a small rotorcraft landing on a platform. The coordination and cooperation has been excellent on all issues of airspace use. There have been a few “near miss” reports but that is almost routine considering how many aircraft are in the air at any given time.
For long-range consideration, the question is, what effect is this disaster going to have on the helicopter community here on the Gulf coast of America? As it happens, the effects are already being felt. A six-month moratorium on deep water drilling is almost a death sentence for the drilling operations taking place now. At last count there were 33 deep water rigs working. Halting activity, for even a few days on a half-million-dollar per day rig, is a mini-disaster. It’s a sure thing that those big rigs will pull up anchor and head for greener pastures out of the U.S.
Right now the domino effect is taking place. Each rig has at least 150 workers on it that will be laid off or are already at home. The suppliers all along the coast are shutting down; the supply boats that carry the heavy items like drill stems, casings, mud, cement, and tools are in port with no work. The big helicopters that Era, Bristow, Cougar and PHI operate to carry the crews from shore to deep water and back will soon become idle. Some estimates are that at least 50 percent of the big boys, like the S-92, AW139 and EC225, will be out of work very soon. When that happens, layoffs of flight crews, managers and maintenance personnel will take place. Next in line may be some of the training facilities like FlightSafety that do recurrent training for the larger helicopters. Aircraft parts suppliers will reduce inventories. It’s just a slowdown of everything connected to the industry. Hopefully the administration can come up with a plan quickly to avoid causing extended hardships for all involved.