Most offshore oil and gas installations around the world are supported by helicopter operations, and yet the work, particularly the landing on rigs, continues to be dangerous, often combining a cramped industrial environment with bad weather conditions. Helideck crews on rigs, therefore, need to be prepared for the worst - a helicopter crash on deck, with fire and casualties. As a result, realistic training is essential.

There is little space available on a rig, however, for storing a simulator, and offshore safety exercises often use a refuse skip or similar container to stand in for a crashed aircraft - or crews are simply asked to pretend that the aircraft is there - which amounts to little more than a test of the crew's response.

Gordon Haines, a helideck landing officer (HLO) with 17 years' experience on oil rigs in the North Sea, and now director of UK-based Aviation and Administration Services, has designed what he sees as a solution to providing realistic on-site training for personnel likely to be involved in a crash or rescue on a rig. His planned mobile aircraft-crash/rescue-training simulator (MACRS) is a helicopter-shaped module which can be taken to a rig by sea or air to provide hands-on training, complete with smoke and fuel-leak simulations.

Crash/rescue work usually forms only part of the duties of a rig helideck team, and is covered by a well-equipped paramedic backed up by first-aiders. Onshore training in the UK consists of an initial five-day course, leading to a certificate valid for three years, followed by two-day refresher courses every three years. Training usually happens during a crewmember's field break, so it is not always possible for a team to train together.


Offshore conditions

Haines says that the MACRS will allow the team to train together in the sort of conditions to be expected offshore.

The planned simulator is a representation of a medium-lift helicopter fuselage, about 5.2m long and 2m wide. It will be rugged, to allow for repeated transportation to and from new training sites. It stands on legs, fitted in the position of undercarriage legs, which can be adjusted as it is lifted into position by a crane.

The adjustable legs allow the body to stand as if it were a crashed helicopter - nose-up or nose-down, tilted to port or starboard. The weight of the MACRS will be around 1,400kg. With the body standing level, its base is 0.6m above the deck and its "engine cowling" 2.8m above. The body can also be mounted on its side.

The legs end either in rubber pads, to protect painted surfaces, or wheels, to allow the simulator to be moved on the deck. The body is modular, held together with bolts and clamps. This makes possible simulation of an aircraft which has broken up, or allows exercises to be based on individual parts of the aircraft.

The "cockpit" has two crew seats and a selection of controls normally used in an emergency - throttles, fuel cut-off and pump switches, battery master switch and fire-extinguisher controls. When the body is broken up to simulate a crashed aircraft, the controls are disconnected, but they could be wired together.

The "cabin" is fitted with two rows of four seats, with seatbelts, which can accommodate dummies or volunteer "casualties". It is of average helicopter-cabin height, and is offered with the option of two types of doors - a lightweight set, similar to normal aircraft doors, with windows and the usual locks and latches, and a set of more robust doors which are strong enough to take human weight when the MACRS is lying on its side. Haines says: "We want to enhance skills realistically, but without danger. Trainees must not be injured during simulation - by falling through a door, for example."

In the "tail" section is a fuel tank filled with a coloured inert liquid to simulate fuel, while a Hale/Rosco smoke-generator system can supply theatrical "smoke" from the engine cowling, cabin, battery bay or luggage hold.

Simulated smoke and fuel leaks can be preset to start after the exercise has begun. The simulator can be set up so that smoke and fuel leaks will only stop after the trainee rescuers have operated all the switches they would need to in the aftermath of a real crash.

Again, the simulation is safe, since both the smoke and the fuel are inert. Haines is aware that some operators might be wary of smoke being produced on their rigs, but points out that it could be done under the Permit to Work rules which govern any task on board, such as welding. Under this system, the rig's production controller makes sure that all crew know who is doing what and where, to avoid false alarms.

Haines has discussed the MACRS with organisations involved in rig aviation safety, including the UK's Offshore Industry Liaison Committee (OILC), which has made a brief assessment of the simulator. It reports that current offshore training practice, using containers, or nothing at all, to simulate a crashed aircraft "-engenders a high degree of unreality in the training-No matter how enthusiastic the crew, this total lack of reality inevitably leads to training becoming 'just another exercise'."

Pointing to the trend which OILC perceives towards offshore training for fire crews, including helideck crews, the view of its HLO members is that the MACRS is "-a perfect example of what is required to correct the present failings in on-site training offshore". They describe Haines' simulator as a "must" for future development of on-site exercises.

The UK Health and Safety Executive, UK Civil Aviation Authority and Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation, although they cannot endorse products, have also made positive comments about the MACRS, says Haines.


Room for improvement?

Others in the offshore may not be so sure, however. Many may be satisfied with the current onshore training available - which Haines admits is of a high standard - and ask whether it is appropriate to occupy a rig's helideck, even for the time taken to set up and use the simulator which, by its nature, takes up nearly as much space as a real helicopter.

The simulator has attracted the attention of Westland System Assessment (WSA), based at the GKN Westland helicopter factory in Yeovil, UK. WSA is developing a virtual-reality version of the simulator for classroom training. WSA System-engineering manager Dr Michael Reakes says that the MACRS allows the skills needed for incidents as demanding as a crashed helicopter, lying on its side and with injured passengers inside, to be developed. "Offshore medics and first-aiders need to practise casualty removal, working as a co-ordinated team with firefighters in various scenarios," he says.

Haines and Reakes see on-shore uses for a system such as the MACRS, where it might be used to replace the usual airfield crash/rescue exercises using old aircraft with fuel trays alight inside. With a MACRS-type simulator, trainees can experience both firefighting and casualty treatment and removal at the same time - not possible if the training rig uses a real fire. Added to this is the element of surprise. Trainees can be put on their mettle by being confronted by an accident scene on unfamiliar ground, and with the configuration of the crashed "aircraft" kept from them until they arrive.

Haines and Reakes are also considering using the same concept to simulate other types of aircraft, including fixed-wing light aircraft, small military aircraft and sections of commercial widebody types.

Haines is looking for funding for his MACRS concept. He puts the development cost of a prototype at £80,000-100,000 ($130,000-160,000), and the eventual unit price at over £30,000. He hopes for a European Community grant of up to £25,000, but needs input from potential customers to get the project moving. "Getting the first order is crucial," says Haines.

He has not yet produced an engineering design, but Westland will be providing a specification sheet for the MACRS soon, says Haines. After seeing the Westland virtual-reality version of the system, he has hopes that WSA will be able to produce "the real thing" for him.

His first target market could well be the Middle East, where he perceives a trend to oil-producing countries investing heavily in their own training establishments. For the UK market, Haines would prefer to build his own simulators for hire to offshore operators.

Source: Flight International