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PURSUING PETRO DOLLARS

Extending the range of helicopter ops

Continental shelf oil and gas discoveries, plus deepwater drilling development, boost big helo sales for offshore use.

By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo. Challenger 604,
Bell 222/412, Eurocopter AS350B3


Norsk Sikorsky S92 circles a drill rig before landing. The whitecaps and ocean swells reflect the typically harsh conditions in the North Sea.

In modern aviation we seldom experience quantum leaps. But in the quiet reaches of Louisiana, an evolutionary tide is carrying the offshore helicopter community into hitherto uncharted territory.

In the past 10 years, operators supporting the oil and gas industry have transformed themselves from flying single-engine light aircraft to sophisticated multiengine helicopters equipped with the latest avionics technology, flying in a near-Part 121 environment.

As to what has driven such a cataclysmic change in what would appear to be a sleepy, outback part of aviation, in a word, it's the quest for oil. With China, India and other nations rapidly becoming economic players, demand for oil has skyrocketed.

The oil business is demand-driven—and, when it sees world economic growth, it responds. Oil company engineers reopen hitherto shelved plans for finding oil where they've not searched before. This includes offshore, but far deeper into the Earth's crust than any drilling project has ever bored.

Deepwater drilling sites are in waters much further offshore than current projects. Helicopters are essential transport assets to any oil or gas drilling project, but they're the very lifelines of those located in oceanic environments. What is needed for these new, far-flung projects is medium and heavy twins—the ideal vehicles for long overwater flights.

Twin-engine helicopters

The Sikorsky S92, conceived out of the hugely successful UH60 Black Hawk as a large transport, has suddenly moved into prominence. Orders have come in from operators all over the world gearing up to support drilling projects 200 miles or more out to sea.

AgustaWestland and Eurocopter, intent on gaining market share, inked new designs for the longer overwater mission, and the AW139 and the EC175 would soon join the fleet. Aiming for a lower-cost, slightly smaller configuration than the S92, both manufacturers planned their products around a 16-seat utility cabin. The S92 is capable of transporting up to 19 passengers.

This is the maximum allowed under FAA regulations without a flight attendant, although the S92 can haul as many as 22 pax in military seating configuration.

Oil and gas safety rules

Oil company personnel work in one of the most dangerous environments in the world. The smallest human error can cause a major catastrophe—as witness the explosive destruction and sinking of the BP Deep Horizon drilling rig. Eleven people were killed, and damage from the oil spill has run into billions of dollars.

The oil and gas companies are acutely aware of their exposure. As a result, they've created some of the most aggressive safety programs in the world, including strict regulations for helicopter operations. Going well beyond FAA rules, oil and gas regulations govern their own aviation operations as well as those in the hands of vendor operators.

Oil and gas companies insist that air operations to their rigs—now ranging over 200 miles offshore—incorporate all available safety assets. One major push is a requirement to operate IFR—a long established standard in the North Sea and North Atlantic offshore oil regions.

Sikorsky S76 in PHI livery lines up for a landing on a drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico. Note the crane uncomfortably close to the helipad. Standard procedures call for all cranes to be moved away from the helipad and stopped during helicopter arrivals and departures.

Oil and gas companies work with operators to define what onboard equipment complies with their safety standards. Making the list are EGPWS, TCAS, health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS), and sophisticated approach and navigation aids in various forms of enhanced vision system (EVS) and terrain mapping. One benefit of larger helicopters is that their standard configurations include all of these advanced avionics.

AW139s, S76s and S92s are operated as 2-pilot, IFR aircraft. Their autopilots are coupled-approach capable, and every helicopter has, at a minimum, TCAD-level collision avoidance. Ground proximity systems are at least TAWS compliant.

HUMS monitors and records critical systems parameters and component performance. The maintenance department downloads the onboard data, scans it for variances indicative of mechanical issues, and schedules appropriate repairs before the problem becomes critical. With HUMS, mechanical problems are spotted before they become safety-of-flight issues. Passengers are safer for flying in HUMS-equipped aircraft.

In the Gulf of Mexico (GOMEX) operating area, where safety has became a driving factor, helicopter operators have taken the HUMS concept to the next level, integrating it with a matrix of flight performance parameters. Flight analysis software tracks system excedances and flight profile transients. Flight operations quality assurance (FOQA) programs, now standard within the airline community, have been hugely successful and are a vital tool in reducing accidents.

GOMEX helicopter operators are incorporating HUMS-based flight recording systems and FOQA principles into their daily operations. They have reached accords with their pilots to use FOQA data to improve everyday flight profiles and reduce potentially dangerous deviations. The result is that in the past 2 years there have been zero fatalities in GOMEX multiengine helicopter operations.

Gulf IFR ops

GOMEX flight operations are in Houston Center's airspace. The IFR minimum enroute altitude (MEA) through much of the offshore airspace is 3000 ft MSL. Center radar cannot cover aircraft flying lower than the MEA more than about 50 miles offshore. If the mandate for IFR operations was to be honored, something had to be done so that helicopters operating below 3000 ft would have the requisite airborne surveillance. The answer was ADS-B.

Automatic dependent surveillance–broadcast (ADS-B) is the lynchpin of the NextGen ATC system. Set to be in place by 2020, it will provide aircraft and controllers with a dramatically more precise picture of aircraft in flight, positive coverage in the oceanic environments, and significant additional capacity in the airspace system. A prototype model is now operational in GOMEX airspace, providing the positive control essential to IFR operations for helicopters operating at any altitude and as far out in the Gulf as they need to go.

The system depends on Mode S transponders to transmit position, speed and altitude data, along with identifiers, to Houston Center. All aircraft in the GOMEX airspace are now equipped with Mode S transponders, so the Center "sees" them and can provide IFR separation when requested. And GOMEX helicopter operators have become key partners in prototyping the NextGen airspace system so as to fulfill their commitment to the highest levels of safety.

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