Offshore giant PHI improves performance in Gulf of Mexico with S92s and ADS-B

Safety and accuracy standards enhanced with new Sikorsky helicopters and better avionics equipment.

By Mike Potts
Contributing Writer

Members of PHI staff with an ADS-B equipped Sikorsky S92 at company's LFT (Lafayette LA) headquarters.

It is Dec 17, 2009. A yellow and black Sikorsky S92, N692PH, operated by PHI Helicopters, lifts off from HUM (Houma LA) bound IFR for an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

At Houston Center the controller reports 692PH as "radar contact," although this is not entirely correct. In fact, there is no radar coverage suitable for IFR nav in the airspace where the S92 is operating. Nonetheless, 692PH appears normal on the controller's screen, as if there were actually radar coverage, and the operation is both legal and according to plan.

What the controller is seeing is the signal generated by the S92's automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast (ADS-B) equipment. The signal goes to an ADS-B ground station, which transmits it to ATC in a format that makes it look like a radar return.

Although it occurred without fanfare, that 2009 flight by N692PH represented a significant milestone—the launch of regular IFR civilian ADS-B flight operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Nor was the flight of N692PH a unique event.

Ever since, PHI has been conducting regular operations using ADS-B, operating a fleet of 16 S92 and 21 S76C++ helicopters, all equipped and certified for ADS-B operation. Today, nearly 40% of all PHI flights in ADS-B equipped aircraft in the Gulf of Mexico are conducted as IFR operations using ADS-B.

That percentage is nearly 50% for its S92 fleet, which is completely ADS-B equipped. That's a huge change from just 5 years ago, when fewer than 5% of the flights were IFR. In most prior years the number was below 3%.

For most aircraft operators in the US, ADS-B is still somewhere in the distant future—part of FAA's NextGen traffic modernization plan scheduled to be implemented over the next decade. Current requirements dictate that operation in all Class A, B and C airspace as well as Class E airspace above 10,000 ft will require ADS-B equipment by Jan 1, 2020.

Obviously, the transition to ADS-B will require a phased approach, but exactly how that will occur has yet to be fully defined. Questions abound regarding equipment availability, installation certification requirements and a host of other issues.

In the meantime there are a number of limited areas in the US where FAA has activated ADS-B operations, including portions of the east coast, the Philadelphia and Louisville terminal areas, and much of southern Florida, although utilization is sporadic because few aircraft are ADS-B equipped.

In the Gulf of Mexico, however, ADS-B is fully operational and in regular use in the areas where helicopters serve the offshore oil industry—generally the airspace between Houston TX and Gulfport MS, extending south from the coastline to about 300 nm into the Gulf.

PHI's flight department is the primary user of ADS-B services in the Gulf. It played a key role in working with FAA and the oil industry to get the ADS-B system set up and running. Here, key members of the flight department give their views on how ADS-B is working.
Pat Attaway is dir of ops for PHI.

A former US Navy aviator, he joined PHI as a line pilot in 1990, moving into training a couple of years later and into management in 2000. He was named dir of ops in early 2010. Attaway has been participating actively in the program to implement ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico since 2006.

Getting started

Dir of Ops Pat Attaway had a lead role in the 3-year process to launch ADS-B based IFR operations in the Gulf of Mexico.

That was when FAA and industry came together and signed a memorandum of agreement (MOA) to bring ADS-B services to the Gulf of Mexico. Signatories to the agreement were the FAA Surveillance and Broadcast Services Program Office, HAI and industry partners (helicopter operators, platform operators and owners).

Under the MOA, FAA identified the Gulf as a location of early implementation and said it would begin installing communications equipment in 2007–08, weather reporting equipment in 2008 and surveillance equipment in 2009, with a target to be operational in 2009–10.

Attaway says there were compelling reasons for early adoption of the ADS-B in the Gulf of Mexico. Over the previous decade, offshore oil drilling had expanded significantly, moving into the deeper water beyond the continental shelf. This brought a sharp increase in the requirement to move personnel on and off drilling rigs, and an attendant expansion in helicopter traffic to support it.

With almost no radar coverage available, IFR ops in the Gulf were conducted much like airline traffic was controlled in the 1940s. Large blocks of airspace—typically 20 miles or more in diameter—were allocated to individual aircraft to ensure separation. As a result, fewer than a dozen helicopters could operate IFR around the oil rigs in the Gulf at any one time.

There were long waits for clearances—with 45-min ground holds not uncommon—and most pilots operated VFR whenever they could in order to facilitate operations.

None of the significant stakeholders—the signatories mentioned above —was happy with that situation, and working with HAI and the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC), a new MOA was established which created an FAA/industry partnership—an occurrence Attaway identifies as the seminal event leading to ADS-B ops being launched in the Gulf.

Each contributes

PHI Sikorsky S92 heads for an oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Today nearly half of these flights are conducted IFR using ADS-B.

Signed on May 18, 2006, the MOA committed each party involved to a significant in-kind contribution to support the project. For FAA it meant funding the infrastructure it had committed to in the NPRM. For the oil companies it meant identifying and giving up valuable space on oil drilling rigs to locate 35 ASOS weather reporting stations, 5 communications stations to ensure reliable radio reception above 1500 ft agl and 21 ADS-B ground stations to provide ATC surveillance for aircraft above 3000 ft.

For the helicopter operators it meant providing transportation to the rigs to support ASOS and ADS-B installations and equipping their fleet to operate in the ADS-B environment. Other key players included avionics suppliers Garmin, Rockwell Collins and Universal, as well as ITT—FAA's equipment supplier on the program.


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