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Sunday, May 1, 2005

An Offshore Lifeline

Robert W. Moorman

Lifesaving training, new technology and support gear are adding to the safety of offshore operations.

The energy industry and its offshore helicopter operators have, over the last few years, quietly enhanced their emergency training programs, as well as retrofitted their helicopters with various safety gear and communications equipment to support their operations worldwide.

There are multiple reasons why companies in this industry have become proactive, not the least of which has been the steady rise in the number of accidents over the Gulf of Mexico in the last five years. Last year was the worst year for fatalities, according to the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC), which has been gathering helicopter accident data for 21 years.

In the last five years, there have been 48 accidents in the Gulf, 16 of which resulted in 32 fatalities, according to HSAC. Fifty-two percent of those accidents were due to pilot procedure-related causes and 29 percent were due to technical fault.

This steady increase in accidents, and the corresponding rise in insurance rates, coupled with the fact that helicopter operators are now supporting more deep-water operations as far as 250 nm. offshore, has prompted the petroleum industry to insist on more emergency training for pilots and offshore personnel, as well as more support gear on rotorcraft in case occupants have to ditch. Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET), which takes around 4 hr. and includes various lifesaving techniques, is now required for all new hires of most offshore operators worldwide. Recurrent HUET training is mandated every 3-4 years.

Offshore operators are also retrofitting their helicopters with the latest technology, ranging from affordable satellite-based flight-following equipment and integrated, externally mounted pop-out floats and rafts to personal locator beacons and immersion suits to protect against the frigid waters of the North Atlantic and elsewhere.

Cost is a factor. Technology and support gear are more affordable and accessible to the rotorcraft industry. As such, the equipment is being installed on the fleets of numerous offshore operators. Air Logistics, a subsidiary of Offshore Logistics, Inc., one of the world's largest providers of offshore helicopter transportation services, has 160 aircraft operating in the Gulf of Mexico, of which 80 have satellite tracking, traffic, advisory systems and moving map displays and flotation systems.

The story is the same for Petroleum Helicopter Inc., another major player that operates over 170 helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico.

For new rotorcraft, such as the Sikorsky S-92 and the recently certified Bell/Agusta AB139, these safety options have become, in effect, standard equipment. Norsk Helikopter, which has begun revenue flights in the North Sea with its first of four ordered S-92s, comes equipped with the latest emergency equipment. PHI has two, fully loaded S-92s operating in the Gulf, with two more being delivered this year.

Drawn by its safety and performance features, ChevronTexaco has ordered three AB139s. SEACOR Holdings, parent of Era Helicopters and TexAir Helicopters, ordered 20 AB139s in February.

Offshore rotorcraft today come equipped with the safety-enhancing health usage monitoring systems (HUMS). Mechanics can use such systems to perform a daily diagnostic check of the aircraft that may fly several flights per day, typically.

Operators of larger equipment are also insisting that their aircraft come equipped with helicopter emergency exit lighting systems and larger pop-out windows. Aeronautical Accessories, a division of Bell, offers helicopter emergency exit lighting systems on Bell 430 and 412 and provides kits for smaller, single-engine aircraft. Other manufacturers offer similar options and indicate the call for this equipment is on the rise.

"The oil companies and their operators are very vocal about letting us know what they need," said Bob Pope, Bell's energy utility market segment manager. Pope, who has worked with the offshore oil industry since 1978, said he meets constantly with the aviation safety advisors of various oil companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico and North Sea. From these meetings come suggestions on aircraft design and outfitting safety-related technology and gear for rotorcraft.

Sikorsky agreed safety-related options are, in effect, becoming standard for the industry, reflecting a larger trend among offshore operators for greater consolidation and standardization of safety equipment, training and procedures across the enterprise.

Fueling this proactive stance has been the spirit of cooperation between FAA, offshore operators and the petroleum industry. At present, FAA regulations do not require any special emergency training or equipment other than what is mandated by the Part 135 or Part 91 regulations.

Nevertheless, a working group made up of offshore operators, oil companies and the FAA has offered suggestions, some of which have been implemented, said Mark Fletcher, manager of the FAA's Fort Worth Aircraft Evaluation Group. Installing better safety-related equipment and enhanced training were two suggestions, said Fletcher, who was the team leader for the Gulf of Mexico Industry-FAA Helicopter Working Group.

Although these suggestions have been initiated voluntarily, FAA does not rule out the possibility of a regulatory change for helicopters operating in the Gulf of Mexico. He added that the Canadian regulatory authorities are moving toward mandating lifesaving training and safety-related equipment.

For rotorcraft flying over the North Sea, this is required already. Most offshore helicopter operators abide by CAA and JAA/European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) standards, which require additional training and equipment. This is not to suggest that the petroleum industry in the North Sea does not rigorously push for enhanced training and support equipment, as well. The United Kingdom Offshore Association (UKOA) has been very vocal about what additional safety equipment and training they would like for their clients and personnel, according to Bristow Helicopters Ltd., a division of Offshore Logistics Inc., which also owns Gulf of Mexico operator Air Logistics.

"The petroleum industry has been very proactive and progressive in their safety programs," said Jim Gunter, director of the Marine Survival Training Center at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette, which provides HUET and basic survival-skills training for many Gulf of Mexico operators and their petroleum industry clients. "I estimate that 80-90 percent of the training we do is mandated by the petroleum industry to protect their employees," said Gunter.

Wanting everyone to sing from the same hymnal may be another reason.

"We require our contractors to maintain the same safety standards as our flight department and that includes the same type of emergency training," said Gary Guerrero, chief pilot for ChevronTexaco's Gulf offshore operation in Picayune, Miss. "The biggest change is that this kind of training is offered for all offshore employees, not just pilots."

The university center uses a Modular Egress Training Simulator, or "dunker" to make the HUET training more realistic. In 1996, when the simulator was purchased, the goal was to develop for Gulf operators what was already being offered in Canada and North Sea operators.

To conduct HUET, the center uses a 30X50-ft. training tank near the university.

Business is good and getting better. The center is building a second, larger pool nearby to house another egress simulator, manufactured by Survival Systems of Canada. The manufacturer operates the only other egress simulator for civil use in Groton, Conn., according to Gunter. Before 1995, the only place available in the U.S. for civilian offshore pilots and employees to obtain HUET training was on military bases.

Many companies worldwide provide HUET and the syllabus does not vary much from trainer to trainer. Most trainers review the standard safety equipment on helicopters--life rafts, flotation devices, immersion suits, communications equipment, as well as survival procedures--according to John Heiler, a principal with Pro Aviation Safety Training in Langley, B.C.

One of the more important survival techniques taught to those that operate over cold water is the Heat Escaping Lessening Posture (HELP). To adopt the HELP position, survivors should place the inner sides of the arms to the side of the chest, hold their thighs together and raise the legs to protect the groin.

Pro Aviation Safety Training offers HUET using a portable Dunker for both pilots and passengers working in the offshore industry. Its main customer: Canadian Helicopters International. At Pro Aviation, the training consists of 3.5 hr. of classroom instruction, 2-3 hr. of pool time, followed by de-briefing.

NUTEC Ltd. provides HUET for Bristow Helicopters and others operating in the Northern Atlantic. There, students are subjected to a partially submerged upright dunk in the egress trainer, a full upright submersion and a full inverted submersion in the cage. As with all HUET training simulators, the students are subjected to machine-generated waves and wind. But, for safety reasons, the trainers do not drop the water temperature to reflect real conditions in the North Sea.

"The client requirements will be the same wherever they operate in the world and most of the big [oil companies] have global interests," said Paul Quick, training and standards manager for Bristow Helicopters. "In some regions, the reality is that it is difficult to fulfill these requirements. So there is always a drive to improve things within commercial, geographic and regulatory limitations."

The full immersion body suit for helicopter pilots and passengers may be the most important piece of lifesaving equipment, particularly for North Sea operators. Bristow Helicopters use a full-body Gortex "dry suit" from U.K. manufacturer Multifabs Survival Ltd. Its sister company, Whirly Bird Services Ltd., services the suits.

Mustang Survival of Western Canada produces the Flight Commander (MS 2000) transit suit for passengers, as well as the Ocean Commander full-immersion suit, which is used predominantly by military flight crews.

So far, in Canada, there is not a regulatory requirement that helicopter pilots wear immersion suits during offshore operations.

Saving lives as well as the airframe are key reasons why a number of offshore operators are retrofitting their entire fleets with exterior mounted pop-out floats and life rafts. A leading flotation systems manufacturer is Apical Industries, which has enhanced and lightened its integrated flotation and life-support system over the last few years. The MD Helicopters MD902 was the first helicopter for which this 228-lb. system was developed. Since then, the system has been certified on several models. For the Bell 206 and 407, the combined flotation system now weighs 159 lb. For some customers flying larger equipment, Apical now offers a redundant system with two externally mounted life rafts.

The Apical system can be activated quickly. Prior to ditching, the pilot fires the flotation system before auto rotating into the water. Once afloat, a separate firing system inflates the raft, which is attached to one of the floats. The technology is very popular among offshore operators. PHI and Air Logistics are converting their whole fleet to the Apical system, according to Apical CEO Ron Gladnick.

"Our own experience told us that there is a great advantage at having the externally mounted floats and raft," said Michael Hurst, PHI's chief pilot. "Some of our major oil company customers have asked for this type of equipment."

Apart from helping to save lives, the Apical integrated flotation system is robust enough to help recover the helicopter, Hurst said. While these systems aren't cheap, oil companies are helping independent operators pay for the development and installation of these and other safety-related systems, according to Hurst and others interviewed. For the Apical system, PHI paid the total cost of installation.

Flight-following technology is regarded by many as the most important avionics addition to offshore operations. PHI, Air Logistics, Chevron/Texaco and others queried have retrofitted their fleets with flight-following devices, which take "the search out of search and rescue," said Mark Fontenot, chief pilot for Air Logistics.

A number of offshore operators have installed OuterLink Corp's satellite-based automatic flight following system. Although very popular among offshore operators, the Outerlink system has been around for some time and is viewed by some as somewhat limited in its coverage area. However, the company recently moved to expand its coverage area through an agreement with the Globalstar satellite network.

Air Logistics and Cougar Helicopters, which operates in the Canadian North Atlantic, have equipped some of their rotorcraft with the Blue Sky Network's Iridium-based flight-tracking system. Blue Sky is considered by some offshore operators to be a superior product in situational awareness and communications because the Iridium constellation of 66 low-earth-orbit satellites has worldwide applications.

Another avionics package getting a lot of use by offshore operators is the Goodrich Avionics System's SkyWatch Traffic Advisory System. Dubbed the poor man's TCAS by some operators, SkyWatch provides aural warnings of aircraft out to 6 mi., 12 mi. if a new software package is added. The next generation SkyWatch HP is capable of displaying traffic out to 35 mi. Typically, SkyWatch is linked with the Garmin 400 Global Positioning System display unit. SkyWatch remains popular among operators in the Gulf of Mexico, where hundreds of aircraft can be airborne at any one time.

Sensing a trend for more safety related equipment, there are other avionics manufacturers tapping into the offshore market. Honeywell has added the locations of approximately 5,000 Gulf of Mexico oil platforms to its latest terrain databases for its helicopter Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems (EGPWS) system. Honeywell's EGPWS compares the aircraft's location, which is continually updated from a GPS, to a built-in-database of terrain and obstacles and provides the flight crew with a moving map display. Honeywell's top-of-the-line Mark XXII EGPWS is targeted at operators of large twin-engine aircraft. Honeywell's less costly Mark XXI has generated some interest from air tour operators and land-based operators, but is not widely used by offshore operators. Nevertheless, Brad Deacon, product marketing manager for Honeywell, maintains that the offshore community is a developing market for its EGPWS.

Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs) may be the newest safety-related device to generate attention of offshore helicopter operators, which want to back up the Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs) on their helicopters. For instance, Bristow Aviation carries two ELTs in each helicopter and one mounted on the external airframe that automatically deploys upon impact. As yet, Bristow has no requirements for PLBs, but the technology is generating keen interest among several operators.

McMurdo Pains Wessex Inc. a leading manufacturer of Emergency Position Indicating Radio Beacons (EPIRB), offers its FastFind Plus PLB with or without built-in GPS capability. Measuring less than 6-in. long and weighing 9 ounces, the FastFind Plus can fit easily into a life-vest. The device is 406 MHz compliant, which means it is more effective in deep water operations than early-model PLBs operating only on 121.5 MHz homing frequency.

FastFind offers both frequencies. The PLB also transmits the letter "P" distress signal, which tells rescuers that this is a PLB from a civil operator, not a military operator.

According to the NOAA SARSAT website, which lists all the rescues resulting from 406 MHz signals, there were several rescues of fishing and sailing vessels in the Gulf of Mexico. None involved helicopters or airplanes.

This statistic aside, offshore operators and the watchful petroleum industry may soon seriously consider FastFind Plus, said James Chandler, vice president OF McMurdo Pains Wessex, USA. The U.S. Coast Guard has ordered 14,500 units.

Each offshore helicopter company has its own safety-training standards for pilots, many of whom are seasoned veterans when they first come to work. Others quickly become seasoned because of the nature of the job.

Conducting HUET and lifesaving techniques, along with installing safety-related technology and gear should make offshore operations safer in the years to come and could become a factor in reducing accident rates.

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