Rising helicopter accident rates in the Gulf of Mexico have sparked great concern, and apparently some quick action, by helicopter operators and the energy companies whose operations they support there.
Operators were proud of a GoM safety record that had long bested that of comparable operations in the U.S. The 2002 safety review of the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference reported that the accident rate for GoM operations was consistently about half that (or better) of the rate for all commercial non-scheduled FAR Part 135 operations in the U.S. For a quarter century, the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference has promoted collaboration on safety issues among oil companies, service organizations, helicopter operators, and the helicopter industry.
But annual accidents began creeping up around the turn of the century. According to the conference’s data, there were three GoM accidents in 1998, but nine each in 1999 and 2000 and eight in 2001. That number dropped to six in 2002, but spiked to 15 last year.
A 15-year veteran of GoM flight operations called 2003 “the worst since I’ve been flying there.” According to the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference, last year was the worst for the number of fatal accidents (seven) and for fatalities (12) since the group began recording those statistics for GoM operations in 1989.
Those numbers spurred the advisory conference to convene two groups to delve into the root causes of the rising accident rate and propose measures to mitigate them. One, the risk-reduction working group, is focusing on operational issues. The other is concentrating on technical issues.
The risk-reduction working group reviewed available data on GoM accidents from 1998 through last year. It found that all accidents since 2001 have involved single-engine aircraft. Of the total accidents, the root cause of 53 percent was attributed to pilot procedures. Technical failures were cited as root causes in 27 percent and fuel quality in 6 percent.
The group has already drafted about five recommended procedures (the advisory conference’s traditional means of addressing safety concerns with its members), including ones on fuel quality control procedures and inspections to ensure helidecks are clear of collision hazards. A subgroup is looking at how pilot training might be modified to help prevent accidents. It was scheduled to hold its first meeting in mid-February.
The technical group began working with manufacturers on identifying and rectifying problems such as tail-rotor and engine failures that have contributed to accidents. That group had its first meeting in January.
Bristow Orders EC225s
Bristow Helicopters, Ltd, in mid-January signed a contract with Eurocopter for two firm orders and two options forï¿½ EC-225s. The manufacturer valued the firm orders for the growth version of the Super Puma at 32 million euros (roughly $41 million). Bristow, a unit of Offshore Logistics, Inc., operates 29 AS332 Super Pumas, and collectively has flown those aircraft for more than 800,000 hr. The company’s fleet leader Super Puma has more than 30,000 hr. flight time. Bristow Chief Executive Keith Chanter said the investment in the EC225s is “an important step in renewing the aircraft within” the company’s offshore fleet.
In related news, Offshore Logistics predicted its financial performance for the quarter that ended December 31, 2003 (the company’s third quarter) would not match analysts expectations. Offshore Logistics said it expects diluted earnings for that period to come in at 18-25 cents per share. It said its Gulf of Mexico operations were stable in the quarter, but flight activity declines and higher costs in the North Sea would lower operating earnings from that market to about breakeven. Cost savings from previously announced restructuring of its North Sea operations will not have an impact on earnings until the fourth fiscal quarter, the company said. The company also said poor results on certain contracts in Nigeria would hurt its third quarter international operating results significantly.