Flying Helicopters Offshore

The recent helicopter crash in the North Sea has made a lot of us in the oil and gas business nervous.  Since February 2009 there have been five helicopter accidents in the North Sea,  with all five featuring Eurocopter Super Pumas, albeit of two different models: the AS332 and the EC225.  The AS332 is the older model, replaced by the EC225.

The helicopter which crashed last week was an AS332, but ironically just a little over two weeks before the EC225 had re-entered service having been withdrawn following three ditchings in which there were thankfully no casualties.

Flying offshore in helicopters is a horrible business.  It sounds exciting, but it’s really not.  Firstly, you have to sit through important but mind-numbingly dull safety briefings before every flight, regardless of how often you fly.  Then you have to don a bulky, hot, survival suit and cram yourself into a tiny seat beside somebody else and prepare for an arse-numbing, bumpy ride over a deeply uninteresting piece of sea for one, two, or three hours.  It is very noisy inside the helicopter – you have to wear ear defenders – and you can’t really do anything except read a book.  Conversation is impossible.  The craft jolts about a lot, and you’re ever-conscious of the flimsy disc whirring above you and the extreme complexity of the equipment driving it.

I’ve not flown over the North Sea, but I flew offshore Nigeria a few times.  At least there you don’t need to wear a survival suit, the water being warm enough to survive in.  If the sharks don’t eat you.  That makes it more comfortable, but it’s still pretty horrible, mainly because of the heat.  Helicopter cabins aren’t air-conditioned.

I also flew offshore Sakhalin a couple of times, in a Russian Mi-8, which is a beast of an aircraft.  With the aerodynamics of a flying brick, it is noisy and uncomfortable even by helicopter standards.  But it does have a reputation as being as strong and reliable as a brick as well, and the Russian pilots employed on Sakhalin were second to none.  We had to wear survival suits there, with quilted linings, although with a metre of ice covering the sea over the whole flight path I’m not sure whether we’d have gotten wet before being smashed to smithereens.

I don’t know anyone who likes flying these things, and incidents such as the one last Friday aren’t helping.  I rarely agree with Bob Crow and the RMT, but I can see why he has called for the entire Super Puma fleet to be grounded.  Some of the oilfield workers have started a campaign to get the Super Pumas out of the skies for good, with the Sikorsky S-92 being touted as an alternative aircraft.  However, one of these crashed in 2009 off Newfoundland due to a gearbox failure.

Truth is, as any army helicopter pilot will tell you, helicopters are insanely complicated things and as such a lot less safe than a fixed wing aircraft.  They do train us to escape from a helicopter that has ditched in the sea and turned turtle, and I wrote about when I did this course shortly after I arrived in Nigeria.  They rig up a simulated helicopter fuselage complete with seats and pop-out windows, you all climb in and take your seats, and then they dunk you in the water.  They do this 6 times, and for the last 3 times they spin the whole apparatus upside down, and you’re expected to unbuckle yourself and get out.  It’s a lot easier than it sounds, once you remember that the window on your right-hand side is still on your right-hand side even when you’ve been tipped upside down.  This is not as easy as it sounds.

Digging through some old files the other day I came across this picture of me, sitting on the left by the window that’s a lot smaller than everyone else’s, about to be dunked in and flipped over.

Bosiet 3

At least the water was warm in Nigeria.


4 thoughts on “Flying Helicopters Offshore

  1. Looking at those pictures of the mock helicopter ditching brings back memories for me. I done my offshore survival training in Aberdeen, Scotland. It is tricky keeping your orientation and I have managed to retain the skill of fixing one of my arms pointing towards the exit, during crash preparation and not moving it when escaping from some pubs upside down, rotated 180 and under water, with fearful human being in the way of my escape route.

    I really did feel for the non swimmers that had to do this as well. The worst for me was getting taken out from Aberdeen harbour on a small boat, jumping into the drink and swimming around the boat twice with the full survival gear on and inflated. Object of the exercise was to learn the hard way that you shouldn’t try and swim with that gear on just bob up and down.

    I also remember those boring chopper trips, suiting up and waiting, going onshore was okay as you were going on break but going offshore was not so nice. I have flown in choppers many times, North Sea, PNG, Indonesia, inland Australia and the Bass Strait.

    Last trip was last month we chartered a large eight or nine seater, twin toubo, dual pilot one (don’t know the type) for an overland flyover of the Queensland Coal Seam Gas fields with some Qatari investors. It was pretty cruisy and I made a company video of the trip.

    PNG has to be the scariest place for choppers, its only Russian pilots flying those Mi’s on visuals. A lot of the facilities that you see in PNG were only accessible by chopper initially. We would fly over the location, winch guys down with chainsaws, they would then clear a landing pad. Then we would drop dozer, tracks, body and blades and assemble a dozer and start pushing out from there.

    See this picture below of the second highest bridge in the world. I worked on that project and we done a lot of Russian chopper drops on it. If you can see the limestone coloured material lying down the sides of each abutment, then think that we cut those pads with an excavator benched on the sheer drop side and no safety barrier whatsoever. The red and white painted A frame on teh left hand abutment was also made in Brisbane and that’s another story.

    As far as UK chopper peacetime crashes go, I have always followed the RAF Chinook crash in the Mull of Kintyre in the 90’s with a close interest. It is terrible situation that that the pilots family had to fight for so long to finally get his name cleared by the establishment. I plan to visit the insitu memorial plaque to the crash next month.

  2. Hi Tim,
    This comment is totally unrelated to this post. I am a young Nigerian, and I read the article you wrote about Nigeria. I found it extremely insightful and I agreed with you 150%. I wanted to share your article with my father, and I realized its been deleted. Is there a way you can share it with me via my email address? I would really appreciate it.

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