One-year trial in the North Sea for oil giant BP believed to be the first of its kind

Bristow Helicopters has won a contract to provide an airborne search and rescue (SAR) service for North Sea oil rigs.

The one-year trial for British Petroleum (BP) is believed to be the first of its kind, with oil rig SAR services currently provided by ships. It could lead to contracts for dozens of helicopters across Europe's oil exploration area in the North Sea.

Bristow will operate a new modified Eurocopter AS3322 Super Puma on the $10 million contract from the beginning of next year. Although based in Aberdeen, Scotland, the helicopter will operate between BP's 40 North Sea rigs and platforms.


Bristow's UK general manager Brian Cavan says that the contract will give the company "the ability to demonstrate its considerable search and rescue experience".

The trial is part of the oil company's SAR service improvements under Project Jigsaw. The scheme, which has proved controversial in northern Scotland, could lead to a massive increase in the deployment of SAR helicopters across the sector. SAR services are currently provided by a standby emergency boat located within a 1km (0.5nm) radius of each oil or gas installation to respond to incidents including personnel overboard and helicopter accidents.

Vessel operators have voiced concern over the effectiveness of using helicopters for such missions, citing their inability to operate in thick oil smoke and the medical complications associated with winching people with back injuries.

The trial stems from a safety review last year which recommended increased use of helicopters for SAR. BP says that depending on the outcome of the trial, to be carried out by its employees and the UK's Health and Safety Executive in early 2003, the project could lead to a contract for around 15 helicopters to cover its 25 manned rigs.

Other operators are likely to follow suit and the managing director of Shell Aircraft, Brian Humphries, says his company is "watching the trials with interest".

There are 60 installations in the UK sector of the North Sea with around 15 more in the Norwegian sector. There is likely to be a maximum of one helicopter between two installations, to be used in conjunction with stand-by vessels.

Source: Flight International