SPECIAL REPORT

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.


Check Airman Rich Roy played a key role in implementing ADS-B operations at PHI.

The training and operating integration of ADS-B began in 2006 when the draft LOA was first signed. Rich Roy, a check airman with PHI, was tasked with an early role in the implementation process. Soon meetings were under way with representatives from Houston Center and all the approach control facilities along the Gulf coast, including New Orleans, Lafayette and Lake Charles approaches.

It was decided initially that there would be no onshore ADS-B. Instead, Roy recalls, a series of transition routes were negotiated, creating arrival and departure corridors to transition to and from ADS-B to normal radar.

Generally, the routes, which resemble simplified SID and STAR charts, put ADS-B equipped aircraft at higher altitudes than nonequipped aircraft. PHI published, and continues to publish, its own ADS-B transition and approach charts.

ADS-B training was provided first to PHI's line training captains—senior pilots whose duties also involve training other flightcrew members. The line training captains then trained the remainder of the crews. For PHI, this is a standard method of training crews and bringing them up to the standards dictated by the company's customers, which are mostly oil companies familiar with safe flight ops and the standards necessary to achieve them.

The actual ADS-B training is fairly simple, Roy explains. It consists of a 45-min classroom session supported by a powerpoint presentation. With all flightcrews now current on ADS-B procedures, ADS-B training is provided to new PHI pilots as well as being included as part of the regular recurrent training program. No actual flight testing or training is required, Roy says, because the procedures and operation are just like normal IFR flight ops.

In fact, Roy says, sometimes operating with ADS-B is simpler. "In the Gulf," he says, "with non-ADS-B you have to follow the route structure from point to point. With ADS-B many times the routing is simply direct." Aircraft flying under ADS-B fly higher, typically at 5000 ft or above.

Greater safety

ADS-B ground station installed in PHI's facilities at LFT. This station helped PHI test and certify the ADS-B equipment in its aircraft, and is part of the system in use today to support ADS-B ops in the Gulf of Mexico.

Chief Pilot Hurst notes that flying higher is one of several factors that gives ADS-B operations a greater margin of safety than existed previously in the Gulf. "At any one time there are typically 300–400 helicopters operating the Gulf," Hurst says.

"On a cloudy day they may all be operating at 1000 ft or below, and most days they're below 3000. Operating IFR with ADS-B, you're now clear of all that traffic."

Pilots who actually fly in the system are enthusiastic about ADS-B. Garry Lee, a line training captain on the S92 and a 9-year PHI veteran, has extensive experience operating both with and without ADS-B.

"ADS-B makes my life much easier," he says. "I have weather (reporting) at the destinations I fly to, whereas with non-ADS-B that wasn't always the case. I have communications with Houston Center on the deck, so I can pick up my clearance before I ever get airborne, directly from Houston Center, right from the rig."

Previously, Lee explains, the pilot could contact PHI's dispatch center, which would relay a clearance from Houston Center, usually with a void time. The helicopter would then depart the rig VFR and activate the clearance in the air.

Alternatively, the pilot could call Houston on the telephone, again getting a clearance with a void time—similar to operating from an uncontrolled field on land. The process frequently involved delays—sometimes up to 45 min—says Lee. Today, with ADS-B, clearances are frequently available immediately and almost never entail delays beyond about 5 min.

More alternates

Another major advantage, Lee notes, is being radar identified, usually from as low as 500 ft agl. An added bonus is an increase in IFR alternates. Today there are 25 legal alternates in the Gulf, compared with just 7 before ADS-B was implemented.

The bottom line, says Hurst, is a major increase in safety of operations for PHI. That improvement, he notes, is not strictly because of ADS-B—instead, it is the result of numerous technologies evolving together to produce a safer environment.

Helicopters such as the S92 and S76 have evolved with more advanced avionics systems and better safety systems and redundancy than ever before. Breakthroughs in electronics have enabled the weather reporting systems, improved communications and now ADS-B technology that is making IFR operations more practical in the Gulf of Mexico than ever.

"IFR flying is safe flying," Hurst says. "It is more structured. It promotes crew resource management and allows us to adopt many of the procedures that have made airline flying so safe over the years. At the same time it's making us more productive.

There are flights we're able to conduct safely today that we couldn't operate before without ADS-B and the ability to consistently operate an IFR environment."

Ops Dir Attaway agrees that PHI's investment in ADS-B and related technologies have already yielded significant benefits, and he notes that what has already been accomplished is "just the beginning."

To date PHI is the only major operator actively using ADS-B in the Gulf, but that is starting to change. Attaway says PHI welcomes additional operators, since that will increase the number of helicopters that can be radar-identified, adding still further to improved safety margins.

He also notes that only ADS-B Out is being practiced in the Gulf today largely because the technology and the equipment to support ADS-B In are not far enough along yet to be operational.

Nonetheless, what has happened over the past 5 years in the Gulf of Mexico is little short of a revolution in improved technology and capability for the operators there. Moreover, for those getting ready for the implementation of ADS-B throughout US airspace over the next 8 or 9 years, it gives an indication of what they can expect to see.

Mike Potts is an aviation consultant and freelance writer. He worked in corporate communications for Beech and Raytheon Aircraft between 1979 and 1997.


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