One of the advantages of operating rotary wing aircraft is that we are not confined to established airports or operate under FAA fixed-wing standards of “one shoe fits everyone” ideology. In years past, we have all suffered from visibility limitations, controllers not understanding our unique capabilities, ramp positioning problems, prohibitive costs and so on. I will say that in some cases, it is to our advantage to operate in the airport environment and many do. We’ll leave it at that.
Around the Gulf of Mexico, stretching from Alabama to Corpus Christie, Texas, there are about 20 helicopter bases not on airports with another 10 that are on airports, almost all of which are south of Interstate Highway 10.
Why out base? Economics plays a big role. Practically every flight is southbound from the beach and back. This means less flight time the customer has to pay for. Convenience is big. For years a majority of skilled oil field workers have come from the bayous and small towns of south Louisiana. They work 24/7 for 7 or 14 days straight when offshore and when the shift changes, they want to get back to their families as soon as possible. Some other reasons are space to park automobiles and helicopters. Thirty or 40 helicopters take up a lot of space. Bristow U.S. operates a large out base near the town of Galliano, La. about 50 miles south of New Orleans. They have other out bases but this is their largest one. The location is about 10 miles from the beach on a straight flight. Vance Poleski, the base manager, gave me a hands-on tour of the facility, explaining how the base is operated and the statistics they compile.
The base is located on 90 acres of land and is adjacent to a four-lane divided highway, allowing easy access for personnel and cargo deliveries. At any given time there are 30 to 35 helicopters based there that comprise six or seven different models. Sikorsky S-92s and S-76s, AgustaWestland AW139s, Eurocopter EC135s, and Bell 407s and 206s.
As for passengers, they average 200 to 250 per day, the biggest days being Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays—the days that crew changes take place on the offshore rigs. On the other days flights are filled with oil field maintenance workers, engineers, administrative personnel, communication workers, oil and gas specialists; people who generally do not work on a seven-on and seven-off schedule. Most of them go out and return the same day.
The passengers arrive at the facility and park in a very large parking lot that contains 300 to 500 vehicles at any given time. They proceed to the check in counter, sign in, show a picture ID, deposit their luggage, have a seat and await their call for the flight. Once called, they attend an aircraft safety briefing that covers ditching procedures, exiting the aircraft, and movement around a running aircraft. This is done via video and is specific to the type of helicopter they will fly in. They are then driven to the helicopter on a tram, put on life vests and take a seat. This is very similar to scheduled airliner procedure but without the hassle of Homeland Security (TSA) requiring shoe removal, X-rays etc. On the same hand all passengers are screened to make sure they are not on the TSA no-fly list.
There are some special custom procedures that sometimes come into effect. If the offshore destination is a foreign-registered vessel in transit, then customs clearance is required. If the rig is secured to the ocean floor, then there is no customs requirement.
Normally, there are 50 pilots assigned to Galliano. They work a 14 and 14 schedule and most live far away from the base, like Arkansas, Alabama, Florida, Texas and other states. Bristow has 31 very nice modular homes on the base where the pilots eat sleep and rest. There is also a weight and exercise room available. There are 35 maintenance technicians assigned who work a seven and seven schedule. They too use the modular homes for temporary housing. Thirty-three of these personnel work at night and two are assigned ramp duty during the day. Every level of maintenance is done at the base with the exception of refurbishment, which is done at Bristow’s home base in New Iberia, La. The base has a small control tower that supervises movement on the ramp and controls takeoffs, landings and traffic patterns. Pilots get their weather briefings, flight assignments and file flight plans in a spacious ready room. Flight tracking is done from Bristow’s headquarters in New Iberia where all Bristow flights are tracked throughout the gulf.
There are about 75 IFR flights per month out of Galliano, most taking place during the winter months. ADS-B is used as much as possible. The S-92s have the equipment installed along with eight S-76s and the AW139s soon to be equipped.
All of the large offshore helicopter companies have similar bases at different locations around the gulf. It’s a good system for expediting crew changes and giving airborne support to the energy industry at a cost savings.