When offshore oil support helicopter operations in the UK sector suffered five serious accidents or incidents between 2009 and 2013, the Civil Aviation Authority’s initial response was defensive. It dismissed the fact that the Norwegian sector – with a similar fleet and only slightly fewer operations – had suffered no serious accident since 1997 effectively as good fortune.

Nevertheless, the CAA rolled up its sleeves and conducted a thorough review of UK sector safety, which it then released early in 2014. What it found suggested that the UK/Norway difference was not pure luck.

The CAA found there was a huge amount that could and should be done to improve offshore helicopter safety. This included everything from practical measures to improved operating standards – but above all, better communication. The real difference between the sectors was that the Norwegians had long ago set up better reporting and information sharing systems, and had generated a real “we’re all in this together” culture that involved not only the operators, but the oil and gas industry they served. The British thought they had done that, but the system was not actually working.

With the release of a new and welcome progress report from the CAA, it is apparent that this is all changing. The commendably rapid introduction of new equipment and procedures to improve survivability and rescue in the event of ditching represents a huge advance, but even more encouraging is the culture change. The change in attitude to safety shines through the CAA report’s workaday prose in a remarkable way. The authority is clearly delighted to be able to report a rate of implementation that would be impossible without wholehearted co-operation.

Here we have an industry that in many respects led the world in offshore helicopter safety advances in the 1990s and early 2000s, but had gone into sleepwalking mode, ticking compliance boxes. Their heads were in it, but their hearts were not. Now, the oil and gas producers seem to be on board with the operators, and are all beginning to talk to each other.

The prospect of the Norwegian “we’re all in this ­together” culture transferring to the UK sector is real.

Understandably, the CAA is calling for “this ­remarkable momentum for change [to be] sustained”. However, at a time when oil prices have crashed and the oil companies are laying off employees in Aberdeen and Stavanger, their corporate instincts will be to look for more economies, so the CAA is going to have to keep its eye on the ball.

Source: Flight International