Helideck may be a simple term for a place to land and park a helicopter when operating offshore, but it’s actually not so simple. It is and has been a very complicated and multi-faceted problem that has been with the industry since the first flight to a rig just a few miles offshore some 70 years ago.
The earliest problem was space for rotor clearance on an open deck. Not too big a problem considering the size of a Bell Helicopter 47. Still, equipment had to be moved to accommodate the helicopter, and workers had to dodge whirling rotor blades. As rigs became more complex and moved further from the beach and into deeper water, helidecks were added as an integral part of the structure. Most were offset from the rig’s main floor and cantilevered over open water. There were no standard design criteria or precise placement. What was important was and is space utilization.
Practically every square inch of a rig is accounted for during its design, whether it is a drilling or a production unit. The results have left the Gulf of Mexico with a hodgepodge of helidecks of different shapes and sizes and unstandardized symbology and directives painted on the landing area. Some have used the older American Petroleum Institute (API) RP2L-1 recommended practice; others use ICAO or U.K. CAP 437 standards. Many platform owners have devised their own markings.
Over the years, there have been accidents involving tail-rotor strikes, shutdown aircraft with no tie-down anchors blown off rigs and passengers struck by moving helicopters. On helidecks able to accommodate more than one aircraft, it was hit or miss as to how to park them safely. Helicopters landed on platforms that had never had an engineering inspection (or if they had, the paperwork was lost) to determine how much weight they could support before failure. This was a problem related to the increasing size and gross weight of newer helicopters.
The Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC) began an effort in 2004 to address many of these issues. Progress was slow due to the number of organizations aligned with the oil and gas industry that might be affected by adverse rulemaking. As many as 20 companies, organizations and government agencies have a stake in offshore platform standards. By 2006, lack of progress put the initiative on the back burner for several years.
By 2012, Bob Williams of ExxonMobil led a HSAC working group tackling the enormous amount of coordination needed in drafting a document acceptable to most stakeholders. Williams is a helicopter pilot and a 25-year ExxonMobil aviation advisor. The key document presented and voted on by the majority members of API is known as the updated RP2L-1. You can review it www.HSAC.org.
The document’s purpose is twofold: bring together a standardized marking scheme for helideck surfaces and integrate helideck design considerations into new-build offshore platforms.
While the size and shape of helidecks are important, the information they portray on their surface is critical. This includes the landing area’s weight-bearing capacity; helicopter size limitations; the obstacle-free sector; the location of personnel access and egress points and walk ways; refueling information; rotor-blade clearance; touchdown, lift-off areas and parking areas; prohibited landing sector markings; the name and number of the platform; the “H” marking; the radio frequency in use, and the use of standard paint schemes.
The other portion of the RP contains helideck design guidelines. It covers important issues like placement of helicopter support equipment, which should be integrated into new-build platforms before they are moved from the fabricating yard and installed at offshore locations. This includes helideck size, obstacle proximity, perimeter lighting, directional orientation, fire protection, safety nets, refueling considerations, exhaust gas pathways from platform generators and raw methane gas discharges.
There is the possibility that once the document is circulated and put in use, one of the government agencies that supervise the offshore industry will adopt it and incorporate it in permanent requirements. The U.S. Interior Dept.’s Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement would probably be a good choice; already has a department covering aviation safety and training. Regardless, the many participants of HSAC are making progress toward a solution of a safety issue.