ANALYSIS: North Sea helicopter operators call for improved offshore safety

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Prompted by a number of rotary wing accidents in the North Sea oil support sector in recent years, helicopter operators on both sides of the Atlantic are doing some serious safety soul-searching – and calling for involvement by rotorcraft manufacturers.

Given that several of the accidents involved critical parts failure with little or no warning, operators would like to see real-time engine and systems flight data monitoring at the level used by Formula 1 teams.

Speaking at the annual CHC Safety and Quality Summit in Vancouver on 31 March, Bill Amelio, chief executive of CHC Helicopter, said: “Manufacturers must play a key part in advancing flight safety,” adding that he wants to see a high level of engine and systems health data monitoring available on-demand, “in real-time, including in-flight”. He cited the wealth of safety data transmitted by F1 cars back to their teams. Amelio also called for better “tools and technology” to analyse the vast quantities of flight data helicopters already generate.

Meanwhile, a special review of UK offshore helicopter safety released in February by the Civil Aviation Authority published 32 actions and 29 recommendations intended to reduce risk exposure and increase passenger survivability in the event of ditching. This followed the fatal 23 August 2013 crash of an Airbus Helicopters AS332-L2 Super Puma into the sea on approach to Sumburgh, Shetland. The incident hit safety consciousness in the UK hard, as it followed several other fatal or serious accidents in the UK sector over the previous four years.

However, some helicopter operators in the Norwegian sector of the North Sea – which all took huge interest in the CAA report – reacted sceptically to the authority’s recommendations. Speaking at the 8-9 April Flyoperativt Forum in Oslo, a Norwegian operator said the CAA decision to improve ditching survivability by reducing helicopter passenger capacity – by outlawing the use of the centre-cabin seats – will force more intensive use of the existing fleet, longer duty hours and more flying at night – thus increasing risk exposure. Deputy manager flight operations for CHC Helikopter Service, Sigmund Lockert, maintained that the study concentrates on survivability at the expense of accident prevention and safety culture improvement.

This proposed cabin seating change is a response to protests from offshore workers, who dread the centre seats because of the reduced chance of escape in a ditching if the helicopter inverts. The CAA ostensibly offered an alternative to cabin capacity reduction – giving passengers portable breathing equipment – but no approved systems yet exist, leaving capacity reduction the only choice.

The CAA report also proposes to ban flying when the sea state is worse than category 6, because of the increased risk if a forced ditching has to be made. Lockert’s reaction is to ask whether 100% of the flight has to be conducted over waves that are sea state 6 or less, and how this can be assured before dispatch. He also makes the point that new rules imposing stricter flying conditions or allowable capacity will increase the pressure to use the existing fleet more intensively when flying is permitted, which itself influences risk.

While conceding that safety had generally improved over the years, CHC's Amelio says: “I perceive that some people within our industry think that commercial helicopter services are as safe as they are ever going to be. It’s a mindset that causes us to overlook the reality of our reality.” He welcomes the establishment of a Joint Operations Review following the Sumburgh incident, which involved a CHC aircraft. The JOR – principally driven by CHC, the Bristow Group, Bond Offshore Helicopters and Avincis – aims to standardise and share best practice throughout the industry, including with unions, customers and other interested parties.

Bond Offshore Helicopters has shown no scepticism about the CAA review, welcoming both it and the formation of the JOR: “The report by the CAA complements the work being done by the JOR, which we set up together with our colleagues in Bristow Helicopters and CHC Helicopter last September.”

Countering Lockert’s suggestion that the CAA is not concentrating sufficiently on accident prevention, other CAA recommendations include a review of the effectiveness of pilot instrument flying training, and a programme to improve helidecks, their lighting, and approach and landing guidance. Recent accidents have included two night approaches to offshore rigs in which the crews became disorientated during that critical phase where pilots have to use a combination of external visual and internal instrument information to control a precise flightpath toward the deck.

The CAA says it wants to implement the results of extensive research on helideck design and lighting, and accelerate the introduction of differential GPS-guided offshore approaches and instrallation of helicopter terrain awareness warning systems. The agency says it will “seek to ensure funding for the research” to achieve these objectives.