Extending the range of helicopter ops

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

How far out in the Gulf?

AgustaWestland AW139 arrives on base leg, gear down and ready to turn final. CHC Helicopters operates in many of the world's oilfields, like this one in the North Sea.

According to sources in the GOMEX helicopter community, the real limit on how far offshore these operators might ultimately expect to operate is political, not geological. Below about 25°N, Gulf airspace is in Mexican territorial waters.

Given that the Mexicans operate their own offshore oil and gas enterprises, most observers seem to think they would gladly support US helicopters in their airspace. But the extra layer of coordination would make it difficult to maintain the tight schedules that far-offshore aircraft fly. As it turns out, the 25° latitude line is about 250 miles south of the Gulf coast. US offshore exploration has yet to breach that limit, so this is not a challenge.

An S92 full of passengers cannot make the round trip from a floating drill rig 200 miles or more from the Gulf Coast. Oil platforms and exploratory ships have aviation fuel aboard as well as hoses and pumps to service helicopters. A crew could therefore expect that, after their 90-min flight, they would shut down and enjoy a well-cooked meal aboard their destination while their helicopter is serviced.

For now, GOMEX operations are daylight only, so an S92 crew could expect to make about 3 round trips on any given shift during the summer, and 2 during the shorter days of winter. Pilots are scheduled to either 7-on/7-off shifts or 14-on/14-off, depending on the oil company customer to whom they're assigned.

Recently, one offshore operator gave its pilots flying twin-engine helicopters an across-the-board salary increase. It seems that the supply of pilots qualified to fly in the extended offshore environment is dwindling. Top-step S92 captains can now earn around $130,000 a year, with an excellent benefit package and a set schedule of 14 duty days a month.


S76 and S92 pilots train primarily at FlightSafety Intl's Lafayette LA facility, whose simulators operate 24/7. Pilots also attend training at the FlightSafety learning center in West Palm Beach FL. That facility hosts 3 S76s and an S92, along with several other simulators.

Initial training on the S92 is 16 days and results in a type rating for the candidate pilot. Recurrent training takes the same form as that for Part 135 jet operators, with a 6-month instrument check and some proficiency review between annual requalification events.
The Rotorsim facility—a partnership between CAE and AgustaWestland—offers AW139 training. Rotorsim operates a Level D simulator program. A new AW139 simulator will be online at FlightSafety's Lafayette center in 2013.

Daily GOMEX helicopter operations support scheduled crew changes to thousands of oil rigs, drilling platforms and drilling ships. The helicopters also fly critical parts and equipment to the rigs to keep their vital machinery running. The daily operating structure is very much like a scheduled airline.

Flying in the GOMEX system

A crew in training flies the AW139 simulator at Rotorsim in an oceanic scenario. The pilot monitoring (L) enters data into the Honeywell Primus Epic FMS while the pilot flying (R) manages the right turn. The AW139's complete Primus Epic avionics suite includes automated landing approaches to a hover. SAR mode can lock on to a person in the water and bring the helicopter to a hover precisely over the victim.

Oil and gas workers reporting for duty are informed by their company when to report to one of several private departure terminals. They arrive at a lobby similar to those in small regional airports. A helicopter company employee greets them and checks that they've had a current safety briefing. If not, they are shown a video appropriate to the kind of helicopter in which they'll be flying.

A few minutes before departure, station personnel gather those who are scheduled on a particular helicopter and walk them to the aircraft. They are shown to their seats while ramp personnel load their personal bags. Once everyone is aboard and buckled in, the ramp personnel close all the doors and do a final walkaround check before advising the flightcrew that they are cleared to start engines.

During the loading process the flightcrew completes prestart checks, sets up the cockpit and copies the clearance. Once advised by the groundcrew that everything is secure and that the aircraft area is clear, they start the helicopter. They also activate an automatic briefing recording for the passengers.

The twin-engine helicopters taxi away from the departure area and take off from a designated departure spot. At remote off-airport terminals, the spot includes a clearway—a paved area that provides a clear path for departure through the first 50 ft or so of altitude. Single-engine helicopters hover taxi to the departure spot, then take off along the clearway.

The pilots establish contact with the company communications center before engine start and keep the center updated with status reports in flight, in accordance with their FAA-approved operations procedures.

The communications center monitors each helicopter's position continuously via its onboard reporting beacon, as well as the weather along its flightpath. If a communications specialist notes weather conditions that could affect the flight adversely, he/she will advise the flightcrew and may even suggest an alternative route.

Arriving in the area of the destination rig or ship, the helicopter establishes contact with them. Most rigs have personnel who are certified weather observers. They provide the arriving aircraft with a wind and weather update and, on checking local cameras, advise that the landing area is clear.

After landing, rig personnel assist the passengers away from the helicopter. They unload the baggage and return it to its owners, then reverse the process to load rig workers who are going home. If fueling is required they'll accomplish that as well. Once the loading and servicing is complete, rig personnel advise the pilots, and the helicopter flies back to shore.
"It's the intense attention to detail and adherence to procedures that make each day, we hope, accident and incident free," one pilot comments. "Once you've seen the system in action, you see that it is truly like an airline operation."

Millions of passengers and tons of cargo move throughout the Gulf of Mexico every year. Here the safety record is better than that of any other Part 135 helicopter operating sector. Oil and gas workers ride back and forth routinely to their duty stations, viewing their helicopter ride the same as they would traveling with a major air carrier. That in itself is a significant validation of GOMEX operators' years of work, creating a safe, routine method of commuting for thousands of oil and gas employees and a Fedex-level of reliability for moving vital parts and equipment.

From its early years of small helicopters braving the hazards of local fog and mechanical problems to today's sleek airline-type, twin-engine transports, this helicopter community has recreated itself into a 21st-century transportation system and a model of how modern safety tools make specialized air travel a nonevent for passengers.

Woody McClendon has written for Pro Pilot for 20 years. He flies jets and helicop­ters and is currently a sales manager for FlightSafety Intl.


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