Ever since the Kerr-McGee Corporation drilled its first well from a fixed offshore platform in the Gulf of Mexico in the late 1940’s, helicopters have been an indelible part of the offshore oil and gas (O&G) industry.
“Today, the only safe way the operators can move people is by helicopter. In open water, boats are too slow and is too dangerous to transfer people from boats to elevated platform decks,” explained Bristow Group’s Mark Duncan, senior vice president for Commercial. “If the helicopters can’t change the crews the operations can be shut down.”
Oil and gas operators “are realizing that helicopters are an increasingly vital and critical part of their production chain,” he said. “In the past, helicopters were regarded as sort of a bus service—if you miss one, you’ll just grab the next. That doesn’t work today. As the rigs get into deeper and deeper water the role of the helicopter becomes more and more important.”
It’s not like you don’t know this, but the world is totally dependent on oil and gas. And that unquenchable thirst means that the O&G producers are going further and further afield to find and tap new reserves.
“Looking at the global market for offshore O&G, most of the growth originates from deep water exploration and production,” Duncan said. “And that means traveling farther from shore.” He also explained that today’s major deep-water fields are in Brazil, West Africa, Gulf of Mexico, Northern Norway, the western UK North Sea and in eastern Africa.
“Most of the plays until about 10 years ago were in shallower water and the deepest was up to, say, 600 feet,” he said. “Now our customers are producing at depths of 10,000 feet and greater.”
|North Denes Wessex helping to construct the base of Royal Sovereign
Light Tower, off Beachy Head, in the south coast of England.
The offshore market in the North Sea “is entering a new era of exploration and production, with new fields being accessed from Norway and the UK,” stated Richard Mintern, CEO of Northern Europe and Asia-Pacific for Avincis Group, which is the parent company of Bond Offshore Helicopters and other rotorcraft support companies.
Obviously this new surge to explore in deeper water, farther from shore is a very expensive and often risky pursuit by the O&G producers. “When you turn it into a cost-per-barrel recovered, it’s very viable,” Duncan said. “With the continued high oil prices, it’s all very valuable to the oil companies. That’s why they keep expanding into new areas.”
What this “new era” means to offshore helicopter operators is instead of ferrying rig crews 100 miles or so out to sea, now they’re faced with transporting people and equipment some 200 miles offshore. That puts a whole new level of demand on aircraft and crews.
According to the experts, this extension of offshore exploration will continue to have an increasing impact on the world’s helicopter fleet.
“If you want to efficiently move crews to the shallow platforms, say 100 miles out, you can use a medium helicopter like an S-76,” Duncan said. “It can easily take 10 to 12 people 100 miles out and return them if they can’t land. Every offshore mission is planned that way.”
Duncan said that while there’s no difference in operating a helicopter on a platform that’s in 50 or 5,000 feet of water, there is a major difference when that platform is now 200 miles from shore.
Of course the type of helicopter they’re flying makes a big difference in capabilities and safety. “When you start looking at supporting platforms up to 200 miles out in deep water an S-76 can’t fulfill that mission—it might be able to get there with10 passengers, but it can’t return if the helideck is not open for any reason,” he said. “Most deep water rigs operate with 150 or more workers on board and need to change 15 to 20 crew members at a time. So you need a much bigger helicopter that has more range.”
The current S-61, for example, “can carry 21 passengers, but it cannot carry that many, 200 miles,” Duncan said. “The newer generation helicopters like the S-92 and EC225 can easily carry 18 or 19 passengers 200 miles out and come back.”
While the solution may seem to be as simple as just getting more large helicopters to do the job, it’s not. And there are multiple reasons.
“The supply of heavy offshore helicopters is constrained at the present,” Mintern said. “[One reason is] due to the continuing EC225 gearbox issues (which Eurocopter hopes to have solved by the time you read this story), and with the AW189 not yet in service, there is an unprecedented demand for S-92s.”
Once all three of these helicopter types are available again, he stated, “we expect to see healthy competition between the manufacturers—something that has perhaps been lacking in recent times. It will also be interesting if other aircraft manufacturers decide to compete in this space.”
Adding to the pressure on helicopter operators is the fact that all of the major O&G production regions are all highly active simultaneously. “Over the past years there has always been something that has helped one region grow versus the others,” Duncan said. “Now that all the regions have come out of their various recessionary environments there are a lot of growth prospects. It’s pretty challenging and exciting.”
Duncan said that there are about 1,800 helicopters involved in the oil and gas production business around the world. About one-third of those are smaller helicopters predominantly working in shallower waters like the Gulf of Mexico. The rest are the medium to large helicopters.
“I think there are around 400 large helicopters in operations today,” he said. “Many of those are older types. They either don’t have the range to get out to these new deep water platforms or they’re just too old to operate cost-effectively.”
“It’s putting real stress on the helicopter manufacturers to be able to produce the needed aircraft and on helicopter operators to be able to buy them since the capital investment is very significant,” Duncan continued. “We think we’ll probably need 75 to 100 new helicopters to respond to growth opportunities around the world over the next five-years. Our ability to both procure these helicopters and find pilots for them is probably our biggest challenge.”
|Bell 429 taking off from the FAS citypad.
Of course, buying the helicopters is just part of the puzzle. You still need to find people to fly and fix them. “You always need pilots and in some markets in particular it’s made even more difficult because of constraints on who you can hire,” Duncan said. “Most countries outside of the U.S. have very strict, local content rules. For example, you can only have local citizens of that county on each flight crew.”
That puts a real bottleneck in the hiring system, he said. “Our Bristow Academy plays a big role in that. We train our own pilots and in many cases those are citizens of the countries we’re working in.”
“No matter where you are, local jobs for local residents helps reduce attrition rates creating a win-win situation for our customers and our sister operations,” explained Samantha Willenbacher, director, Bristow Academy. “For example, Bristow U.S. started a robust hiring program for the Gulf of Mexico operations. That has really been felt at our New Iberia, Louisiana training facility.”
It comes as no surprise to many people that the Middle East is home to a thriving offshore oil and gas business.
“While we are operating in a less hostile weather environment compared to deep water sites, offshore operations in the UAE have their own unique challenges, primarily because of the sheer volume of activity,” explained A.J. Baker, vice president of the commercial business for Falcon Aviation Services. “Because the fields are in relatively shallow water, there are many, many more wellheads and platforms in a smaller area.”
“It’s not unusual for one of our aircraft to do 30 to 50 takeoffs and landings in a single day,” he said. “It’s very stressful for the pilots and aircraft. Wind conditions change constantly and there’s often debris on the helidecks to deal with.”
To help reduce some of the operational stresses while increasing safety, Baker said that the company has equipped their 412EPs with BLR Aerospace FastFin tail rotor stability systems and TCAS systems.
“The conditions and workload can be intense and constant,” he said. “So we embrace any equipment or procedural enhancements that can improve safety and service.”
Baker stated that, aside from the high numbers of operations, another challenge for Falcon’s pilots is the high levels of radio traffic. “We usually have several aircraft in the field at any time, with a number of ‘controllers’ in radio rooms located on various central platforms directing the daily work program,” he said. “It’s an extremely dynamic situation. We have found that some pilots, regardless of their flying experience and skills, can really struggle with the radio workload.”
While, depending on who you talk to, the oil and gas business can last for a few more years to a few more decades, savvy operators like Bristow, Bond and Falcon are always on the lookout for new uses for their unique brands of offshore helicopter capabilities.
“Locally and regionally, we are seeing a clear desire towards dedicated helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS),” Baker said. “This has been simmering for a number of years, but it does seem that the high cost of such a service is becoming better understood and accepted. I think it will evolve in the next few years.”
Duncan stated that the Bristow Group is seeing interest in countries privatizing their Coast Guard search and rescue (SAR) capabilities. “The big one at the moment is the U.K. There’s an active tender out to provide SAR services,” he explained. “It will require stationing 22 helicopters at key points all across the country to serve inland and offshore SAR capabilities. Bristow Group already operates over 10 SAR helicopters for government and also O&G companies.”
“Norway is also currently considering the same privatization program,” Duncan said. “We’re expecting that more countries will move that way as they see the benefits.”
“Beyond the great opportunities within the oil and gas industry, we see growth in the demand for search & rescue, (Bond already provides search and rescue services in the North Sea for BP) and in serving major industrial projects in remote locations in South America,” Mintern said. “We are also interested in growing our offshore wind energy services business.
The opportunity to support wind energy generators does seem to be gaining steam. As Duncan explained it, because of their design and height off of the water surface, (some are upwards of 500 feet tall), getting maintenance personnel onto the tops where the actual generators are is difficult and dangerous by boat.
“They are being built with platforms off the backside of the generator so we can actually fly over and hoist a mechanic down to the platform,” Duncan said. “There are a few helicopters doing it today, but the business hasn’t grown to the point where it’s prolific. Maybe within the next decade there will be 5,000 or more of these wind generators offshore in Europe. Everyone is looking for alternatives to oil and gas.”
Falcon Aviation ServicesBell 429 taking off from the FAS citypad. North Denes Wessex helping to construct the base of Royal Sovereign Light Tower, off Beachy Head, in the south coast of England.Bristow GroupBond EC225 arriving at an offshore platform. Bond Offshore Helicopters