Helicopter operators head for deeper waters

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Despite the recent drop in oil demand, record requirements, coupled with decades of oil and gas extraction draining some reservoirs, is leading oil companies and helicopter transport providers to deeper waters.

That means longer range and larger fuel tanks have become desired traits for new aircraft ordered to tap these new frontiers.

"They referred to it as the edge of the waterfall," says Air Logistics chief pilot Bob Old, who has flown in the Gulf of Mexico since 1984. There, the prize is natural gas rather than oil, and the modern map is twice as large as the one abandoned in the 1990s, a chart which barely reached beyond the drop-off 48km (26nm) south of the north shore. "Past there was where dragons lived. Nowadays we go out there all the time," he says. The plan is to go further. Even though exploration and production beyond are more costly, it is potentially more profitable.

Air Logistics is the Americas half of Bristow Group, which in August sold an entire Shore Base and 53 Bell 206s to Rotorcraft Leasing, for $65 million, along with client contracts. Bristow's senior vice-president of the western hemisphere Mark Duncan says there are still 60 single-engined aircraft in the fleet that could go deep, but twins win out for performance and safety.

jeffrey decker 
 © Jeffrey Decker

"Today in the market, supply equals demand or maybe even demand outstrips supply, so we're 100% utilised," he says. "The only place left is to go deeper and deeper. Those 53 aircraft were flying for production management companies - small oil companies who decide to hire a labour company to run and man their platforms rather than hiring themselves. That's what we got out of."

The cold and isolation between Scotland and Iceland offers its own untapped oil, although discoveries there are one-tenth the size of typical reservoirs in the North Sea that are steadily being depleted, says Sally Fraser, of Oil & Gas UK.

"We've been producing oil and gas in the UK for 40 years now. About 39 billion barrels have been extracted," she says. "There are up to 25 billion barrels left."

The northernmost floating and fixed production facilities in the North Sea are serviced from the Shetland Islands, home to remote but important heliports that also support expeditions in deeper waters due west.

"At the moment companies have plans to develop those in the next five years or so," says Fraser. "The easiest-to-extract oil and gas has already been taken out," she says, and oil companies will pool logistical resources for pipelines and other infrastructure.

Operators bid for exploration contracts just as they would for any other. CHC, Bond Air Services and Bristow are the region's largest operators. Now a chief pilot at Bristow's Aberdeen operations centre, Rory Stewart flew an Aerospatiale AS332L to the Faroe Islands to secure a contract. Such flights have been requested there for 10 years. Like the North Sea, he says, "it's quite a hostile environment in terms of weather".