In great waters—the offshore helicopter business

image: © Airbus Helicopters | Pecchi

They fly in the most challenging conditions, but are the safest form of helicopter operations. Insiders say there’s no secret formula to their success, just hard and consistent work in managing the business of safety.

Every day about 6000 people live and work in harsh little steel worlds, dotted around the coast of Australia, far from land. They are workers on the oil and gas installations that stretch from Timor Sea to Bass Strait. They depend utterly on helicopters for transport and medical evacuation.

Offshore helicopters are in the business of flying passengers and some supplies to platforms up to 250 nm from land. At the end of that flight the helicopter lands on a helideck that may be heaving vertically, rolling from side to side or pitching. And they are required to do this at night and in winds and weather up to sea state 5.

‘Offshore helicopter [transport] is the pinnacle of helicopter operations, as RPT is in fixed-wing flight,’ says Graham Bowles of Bond Helicopters Australia. ‘But there’s one difference—we fly for one specific customer. They lease the aircraft and they dictate when they want to fly. In addition, the aircraft needs to be available 24 hours a day, seven days a week for special flights and medivac coverage.’

The offshore business is booming in Australia, where the oil and gas fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) workforce grew by 96 per cent between 2006 and 2013.

‘There’s been an exponential growth of transport category helicopters in Australia, particularly in Western Australia,’ says CASA’s western region manager, Des Byfield. ‘There are 107 transport category helicopters domiciled in the west which is 86 per cent of the national register of those aircraft.’

‘It’s a sector attracting new entrants, such as Bond Helicopters Australia (Bond), and Heli NZ, which specialises in marine pilot transport.’

The widening gyre—safety challenges

Gavin Guyan, general manager of safety and integrity with the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (NOPSEMA), takes a sober view of the risks of offshore aviation.

‘Our focus is on the major risks—catastrophic failures and major events. Helicopter transport is one of, if not the largest risk component of these facilities.’

At the same time, the profile of a typical offshore flight is changing. As oil prospecting and drilling technology improves, oil rigs move into deeper water, further from land. ‘Ten years ago, 150 nm was the average range offshore, Byfield says. ‘Now Bristow is flying 240 nm for the Inpex project and CHC flies a 250 nm route for Conoco Philips.’

From late 2015 Bristow helicopters will support offshore facilities in the Great Australian Bight, when BP, Santos and Chevron begin operations.

‘It’s a challenging environment,’ Byfield says. ‘In terms of water temperature, weather and sea state it’s comparable to the North Sea, except where the North Sea platforms begin about 40 nm from land, these will be up to 250 nm.’

Bristow’s chief pilot, Marc Newmann, says the company has had previous experience in the Bight.

‘We’ve operated there before. What we’re doing now is a more enhanced service with an all-weather SAR. It’s an enhanced search and rescue and medivac service. It means we’re capable of doing winch recovery through the night, using an aircraft that has forward-looking infrared and lights. The cabin is set up more like an EMS helicopter. We’ll have paramedics in the back to give treatment within the golden hour after injury.’

Bristow will operate from a base in Ceduna, but will also build a transit point closer to the oil platforms. ‘It will allow an extra 20 miles range, which doesn’t sound much but that equates to 40 nm of fuel or about the weight of two passengers,’ says Newmann.

The Bight will bring distinct operational challenges. It lies in the high winds of the roaring forties latitudes where for 10 days a year, significant wave heights exceed six metres, which is beyond the height that the latest large offshore helicopters such as the Airbus EC225 are certified to stay upright in after a water landing.

Like large-scale airline transport, offshore helicopter aviation is an international business. And just as the phones of airline safety managers around the world start ringing when an airliner crashes in San Francisco, or Ukraine, so too do the flight tracking smartphones of offshore aviation safety managers.

That’s why offshore helicopter operators from the Gulf of Mexico to the Black Sea are drawing lessons from helicopter operators in the North Sea between the United Kingdom and Europe. Fatal crashes in 2009 and 2013 led to an inquiry review into helicopter safety in the United Kingdom (UK) sector of the North Sea oilfields.

The review, conducted by the UK and Norwegian civil aviation authorities and the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) put forward 32 measures, including a ban on flights during the most severe weather conditions and a size limit for passengers who are too large to escape from a downed helicopter through its emergency push-out windows. Another proposed change is to upgrade the type of breathing apparatus passengers use in underwater emergency evacuation to a scuba-type compressed air system, rather than the current re-breather system.

Safety strategies

In action or in thought—the challenge of change management

In many organisations change management is a vague, consultant-speak concept that relates to persuading affected people of the merits of change. In the helicopter industry change management is about making sure no one is harmed as a consequence of change.

‘Our hard changes are the big projects, introducing a new aircraft or a new operational base,’ says Mike Hurley, head of quality and safety at Bond. ‘These involve about six months preparation, regular meetings, regular updates. We have to do risk assessments for the acceptance of change.’

Bristow Helicopters Australia chief executive, Allan Blake, says: ‘We have a management of change process as part of our safety management system. We’ve just opened a new base and introduced a new type, the (Sikorsky) S-92 and we have management of change processes for both of those.’

Risk assessment is at the heart of change management, Blake says. ‘What new risks are we opening up? Have we got the right level of parts, have we got the right trained pilots, have we got the right qualified engineers?

‘For example, because our colleagues elsewhere have flown the S-92 we go back and look at what incidents happened when they introduced the S-92. We don’t want to repeat their mistakes. What are we going to do about working at height round the S-92 because it’s a very big helicopter and we can’t use the same scaffolds and work stands as for the EC 225?

Taking on new staff comes under the umbrella of change management at Bristow. The solution is thoroughness. ‘For a pilot, it means not getting into a helicopter until three months after joining the company,’ says Newman. ‘In that time we’re sending them to simulators, ground schools. We have training captains dedicated to those guys for the whole three months before a passenger gets on board.’

Revelation at hand—the importance of knowledge exchange

‘Communication is fundamental,’ says Hurley. ‘It’s not just verbal communication, but also the physical—being present.’

He says there’s a distinct safety benefit from having offshore operators and oil drillers share a base at Truscott, in northern Western Australia. ‘People at Truscott know who’s in charge at each producer. When your customer is that heavily involved with you it’s not something you see on the fixed-wing side.’

Bristow engineering manager, Neil Seabrook, says international information exchange is also vital.

‘Every month we have a conference call with UK and Nigeria and for two hours we have the heads of sheds in three continents discuss issues and solutions. It’s very useful. And we invite a CASA representative to observe.’

Balance all, bring all to mind—safety management systems (SMS)  

In the oil and gas industry learning from mistakes is not an option. Disasters such as the Piper Alpha fire in 1988 and the BP Deepwater Horizon spill of 2009 are too expensive—in both lives and money.

‘Piper Alpha had a significant impact,’ says Guyan. ‘It accelerated change, because this industry is, and always has been, a high-risk industry, and standards, in comparison to other industries are higher.’

The accident moved industry in the direction of ‘assessing the risk and having controls in place, rather than having prescriptive nuts-and-bolts standards,’ Guyan says. Offshore aviation has taken this cue from its clients, and was an early adopter of the oil and gas industry‘s practice of using safety management systems.

Hurley says the foundation of safety management is ensuring you know how safe your organisation is, even at the cost of hearing bad news.

‘We always have a live running safety case which must always tell us what the situation is, even if it’s medium to high risk. Our SMS is constantly looking at the operation and we feed that back on a monthly basis to the MDs and the operation.’

Blake describes the four fundamentals of safety as: core values, management commitment, communication and reporting.

‘One, your first core value has to be safety,’ he says. ‘So we have safety as our core value. It prevails over everything else we do.

‘Secondly, it’s not good enough to have safety written down. The management team have to be focused on it every day. We’ve got to run a business and make money, but safety has to be the trump card. It has to trump everything.

‘Thirdly, just because we think that way doesn’t mean our staff will understand our commitment (to safety). So we have to ensure that staff are aware and understand our safety priority. Whether you ask us or the staff about safety the answer has to be the same. The danger is that we think one thing and staff on the ground think another.

‘Finally, how do we know safety is happening on the ground? It’s reporting, simple reporting, but the level of reporting that has to happen is amazing. We do everything we can to encourage reporting, and we do everything we can not to deter reporting. Achieving a “just culture” is a key part of this.’

Cast a cold eye—auditing the hazards

Audit is common theme in speaking with offshore operators. They have become used to being under the spotlight.

‘In the oil and gas industry we get heavily audited. We’ve had 33 audits scheduled this year for one base,’ says Hurley.

Bristow’s managing pilot, Marc Newmann, says audits are both internal and external.

‘We’re constantly audited by all our clients, in addition to CASA. We also have a robust quality and safety department, so we self audit as well. We’ve got these three layers of audit, plus group audit and ISO audit.’

The emphasis on oversight is a consequence of the SMS approach. As the international helicopter safety team notes:

SMS involves the transfer of some of the responsibilities for aviation safety issues from the regulator to the individual organization. This is a role shift in which the regulator oversees the effectiveness of the safety management system, but withdraws from day-to-day involvement in the organizations it regulates.

For offshore helicopter operators audit is a second-tier in additional to commercial ties, between them and their customers.

Bristow’s Seabrook says multiple audits give full coverage, analogous to multiple coats of paint. ‘As much as we sigh about having another audit coming, it’s great to have different eyes looking at a situation; each audit will look at us slightly differently.’

Blake agrees: ‘I don’t think we’ve had an audit that didn’t teach us something.’

Under SMS, despite a regulator being less involved in the day-to-day minutiae of an operation, there is, paradoxically, a greater need for technical expertise.

Guyan from NOPSEMA explains why. ‘One of the things about objective-based legislation is that it requires a regulator that is technically competent. It needs judgment. You have to understand the industry you’re regulating in order to form a view, “Is this reasonable? Is this acceptable in terms of risk?”’

‘Really, what you need is a poacher–turned-gamekeeper.’


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