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Tuesday, June 1, 2004

Offshore Notebook


Pony Up in GoMex

Will the U.S. Congress pony up funds to back its good intentions regarding safety improvements for offshore operations over the Gulf of Mexico? Industry leaders are hoping so.

HAI President Roy Resavage wrote 65 key congressional representatives in late April, reminding them that the House of Representatives has authorized money for improvements to the weather, communications and surveillance services the FAA provides over the Gulf. The list included the Republican chairmen and ranking Democrats on the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and Aviation Subcommittees, the Senate Commerce Committee (which oversees the FAA) and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee (which does the same), and the transportation appropriations subcommittees of both chambers.

The problem, Resavage noted, is that neither chamber sets aside money to pay for those improvements. The situation is the result of Congress' bifurcated budget process. The body authorizes funding to allow federal agencies to legally spend money, then separately allocates the dollars to spend. One is no good without the other.

"Over the past year, HAI and the offshore helicopter operators and oil exploration companies have worked with the FAA to develop a cost-sharing program to improve air traffic services in the offshore and international airspace controlled by the FAA in the Gulf," Resavage wrote. Under that program, offshore platform owners would provide free space on their rigs for weather-observation, communications and navigation gear, and helicopter operators would transport gratis the FAA crews needed to maintain it if the FAA absorbs the cost of the equipment itself.

While Congress passed legislation last year to authorizing the FAA to "support the implementation of low-altitude weather and communications in the Gulf to support offshore helicopter operations," Resavage noted, it appropriated no money for that work.

He asked the folks in Congress for a $10.9-million direct appropriation for Fiscal 2005, which starts October 1, for the FAA to field equipment in the Gulf of Mexico to support low-level helicopter operations. Will they? Stay tuned.

Whether it is a related development or not is for others to say, but the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference's annual review of offshore operations and safety in the Gulf of Mexico confirm that 2003 was the worst year for safety in two decades.

The conference's 2003 review reports that the oil industry's helicopter accident rate per 100,000 flight hours was 3.93, with a total of 15 accidents. That 3.93 rate compares to a 20-year annual average accident rate of 1.83 from 9.1 accidents per year.

The fatal accident rate per 100,000 flight hours during 2003 was 1.84, with a total of seven fatal accidents. That compares to a 20-year average rate of 0.63 from 2.7 fatal accidents per year.

All the accidents in 2003 involved single-engine helicopters.

"This was the worst overall accident record in the 20 years since we began gathering data," the report notes, "with the highest number of fatal events and total fatalities, and second highest number of total accidents." (The report is available at www.hsac.org )

Of the seven fatal accidents, the review says, two involved engine problems and two involved controlled flight into water. One each involved loss of control, helideck/ obstacle strike and "loss of passenger control."

During 2003, the review said, improper pilot procedures accounted for 11 of the 15 accidents, or 73 percent. Of the 11, three were due to controlled flight into terrain or water, three to loss of control of the helicopter and three to obstacle strikes. One involved cargo falling out of the baggage bay and striking the tail rotor, and one was due to striking another helicopter.

In 47 accidents over the last five years, the review says, 14 (or 30 percent) were fatal. They killed 19 people and injured 42. Of those, 25 (53 percent) were due to pilot procedure-related causes and 13 (28 percent) were due to technical faults. The report noted that the only technical causes other than engines were tail rotor failures. In the five-year period, the review said, nine accidents (19 percent) were engine-related and killed four people. A like number involved loss of control or improper procedure and killed one.

Five accidents (11 percent) involved helideck/obstacle strikes and killed five. The same number involved controlled flight into terrain or water and killed five. Three of the latter group of accidents occurred at night.

Four accidents (nine percent) were due to tail rotor failures. Three each (six percent) were due to fuel quality control failures, loose cargo striking the tail rotor or loss of passenger control. The last of those groups involved two fatalities.

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