Understanding the risks
Looking at oil and gas companies as a whole, the relative number of accidents that takes place in an offshore setting is tiny when compared to general industrial accidents or even road traffic accidents. However, while the probability of a serious accident is low, the potential loss of life if an accident does occur is high. Transport flights taking workers to and from offshore rigs and drilling platforms can carry around 20 people at a time, so there is a potential for a multiple loss of life from a single incident. Likewise, an explosion or fire on a rig or drilling platform could lead to dozens of personnel being adrift in life rafts that would need to be found as swiftly as possible. A man overboard from a boat or rig is likewise a rare occurrence, but a serious risk. In all these cases, airborne search and rescue (SAR) support is the quickest way to bring assistance to those who need it.
SAR provision is a growing market, and Melinda de Boer, communications director at CHC, identifies two main drivers. One is the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, which dramatically illustrated the need for rapid response to emergency situations. Another is that the risks of working offshore and the logistical difficulties of rescuing and assisting personnel are increasing as the technology for deep water drilling advances and exploration goes further offshore.
Robust SAR provision is now seen as an essential safety net for oil and gas companies working in offshore marine environments. Without an effective SAR plan in place, they would be taking excessive risks with their workforce.
CHC in Australia
One of the newest partnerships between an oil company and a SAR provider, announced in July 2014, is between CHC and Shell. Northeast of Broome on Australia’s north coast, Shell is installing a floating liquid natural gas extraction and processing facility. CHC’s SAR service has been introduced to support Shell throughout the installation period and once extraction is under way. The company is supplying an EC225 helicopter, which will be based at Broome International Airport and will operate within a range of 300 nautical miles, to provide both medevac and SAR. The paramedic and SAR crew is being supplied by Medical Rescue Air Ambulance. The existing helicopter is equipped for daytime SAR only, but a new helicopter, due to be delivered in January 2015, will provide 24-hour SAR capability.
an explosion or fire on a rig or drilling platform could lead to dozens of personnel being adrift in life rafts
Melinda de Boer of CHC explained that typically the personnel of an offshore SAR crew working with oil and gas companies is somewhat larger than the standard set-up in a state-operated aircraft. In addition to a captain, co-pilot, winch operator and winchman-paramedic, CHC SAR flights may also take to the air with an additional winchman-paramedic or doctor. The reason for the expanded crew is that worst-case scenarios in the oil and gas industries are likely to involve large numbers of people in need of rescue, whereas most typical incidents attended by coast guard and other state emergency organisations typically involve just one or two individuals. De Boer continued: “Although extremely rare, the oil and gas primary mission is an aircraft ditching, where there are anticipated to be 15-21 personnel in the water, in a dinghy or on a ditched aircraft. Personnel may have none, some or multiple injuries and potentially are spread apart. Under these circumstances you would generally need a paramedic remaining in the back of the aircraft to treat survivors as they are pulled out by the other winchman who immediately returns for the next survivor. In this situation, the rescuing winchman-paramedic will likely be close to exhaustion and requiring some recovery time, hence the need for an additional paramedic in the back to continue treating survivors.”
North Sea jigsaw
In the UK’s North Sea oilfields, Bond Offshore Helicopters and BP have been running one of the longest established emergency response support services since 2006. There are two Jigsaw aircraft, both Eurocopter AS332 L2 Super Pumas, one based at Sumburgh in Shetland, the other on BP’s decommissioned Miller platform. Both are equipped for day and night SAR and fly with a crew of four: a pilot, co-pilot, winch operator and winchman.
As with all SAR services, on-the-job training is an important component of every shift. John Fyall, Bond’s communications manager, explained: “Training for such a specialist role is continual, and Jigsaw crews train every day. This includes working with local vessels to practise communications and winching skills as well as simulating SAR scenarios. Crews are continually assessed to ensure their skills are current.”
Since the inception of the service in 2006, Jigsaw helicopters have flown more than 400 missions. As with other similar services, the majority of flights are medevacs, taking workers with industrial injuries or other health problems to hospital. But SAR missions form a significant minority. One of the most notable took place in 2013 when a supply vessel, the Vos Sailor, took on water in a winter storm with winds gusting 70 knots. At the time of the incident, the Vos Sailor was in the Balmoral oil field more than 120 miles offshore from Aberdeen. The callout came at 04:30 hrs. One crew member had been killed in the initial incident, but 11 more remained onboard. In extremely challenging conditions, a Jigsaw helicopter was able to manoeuvre close enough to the vessel to winch eight of the crew to safety.
The winchman remained onboard for an hour with the last three while the first eight were flown to safety. Eventually all eleven were rescued. The helicopter crew was awarded the 2013 Edward and Maisie Lewis Award by the Shipwrecked Mariners’ Society in recognition of their bravery.
Across the North Sea at Hammerfest in northern Norway, Bristow runs an operation similar to CHC’s Broome set-up. Bristow provides transportation and SAR to Statoil ASA and Eni Norge with one EC225 dedicated exclusively to each function. On the SAR side, the company fields 15 pilots, six winch operator-paramedics and four rescue men. As a minimum, a flight crew consists of captain, co-pilot, winch operator and rescueman, though a doctor and cabin assistant may also fly.
As with all SAR services, on-the-job training is an important component of every shift
Bristow’s Norwegian operations demonstrate that although it is important to be prepared for worst-case scenarios specific to the oil and gas industries, in practice, the crews may also perform other duties. One dramatic recent call-out was to a fishing boat rather than an oil-related vessel. The boat was being driven onto cliffs by 10 to 15-m (30 to 50-ft) waves. All 14 of the crew had to jump into the water to be hoisted to safety. Two were rescued by a Norwegian Air Force helicopter and the remaining 12 by Bristow’s EC225.
Until the end of last year, Bristow was also supplying SAR to oil and gas companies in the Dutch oilfields of the southern North Sea, operating from Den Helder Airport in the Netherlands. In December 2013, NOGEPA (the Netherlands Oil and Gas Exploration and Production Association) awarded a new contract for the provision of SAR services to the Belgian aviation company NHV (Nordsee Helicopters Vlaanderen). The initial contract was for six months, but that has now been extended. At Den Helder, NHV will be providing three AS365s specifically for SAR.
NHV is anticipating further growth in the provision of SAR services but also HEMS, transport for oil and gas companies and offshore windfarms, and support for harbour pilot services. To support this growth they are awaiting delivery of 16 new EC175s.
Céline Declercq of NHV said: “Aside from transportation services for the oil and gas industry, the EC175 will also be offered for our SAR activities. The first EC175s are planned for the end of this year in oil and gas transport configuration. In the coming years, a mix will appear of SAR and oil and gas versions, corresponding to the different contracts.”
She acknowledged that bringing this number of aircraft online in a short timeframe is a challenge: “On the one hand, it requires a systematic approach to ‘hard’ topics: supply chain management, operational procedures and so on – to guarantee safe operations and maintain the highest possible availability for each aircraft entering service. But one of the biggest challenges was a ‘soft’ topic: recruiting correct and sufficient human resources and setting up a corresponding training programme.”
Gulf of Mexico
The examples of commercial SAR provision discussed so far involve a partnership between an aviation company and one or two oil and gas companies. Era in the Gulf of Mexico provides offshore SAR services on a different model. Here, multiple oil and gas companies pay a subscription fee. In return, since August 2010, Era has provided an offshore SAR service that covers rigs more than 200 miles (320 km) from shore. Subscribers include Andadarko, Shell, Fieldwood Energy and Statoil. Many non-subscribers also buy into Era’s SAR services on an as-needed basis.
Era has two main bases on the Gulf coast to maximise coverage – one at Galveston, Texas, and another at Port Fouchon, Louisiana. The density of rigs and drilling platforms in the Gulf also helps Era to cover a wider area as rigs and platforms provide a safe and convenient location to refuel mid-mission. Era’s three SAR aircraft are all AW139s equipped with dual hoist systems, night vision, integrated auto-hover with search pattern modes, searchlights and infrared cameras, allowing for a full day and night service. Era’s SAR crew are supplied by partner organisation Priority 1 Air Rescue Inc. Pilots are employees of Era and most have a military/coast guard background. The number of staff involved in the SAR service reflects the density of the Gulf of Mexico oil and gas fields, where over 300,000 people work at over 3,400 oil and gas facilities. The Era SAR and Priority 1 Air Rescue team consists of four medical despatchers, 16 pilots and 36 rescue specialists including paramedics, hoist operators and rescue swimmers.
As of January 2014, the Era SAR service had flown 500 missions, although the majority of these were medevacs rather than SAR emergencies. A SAR pilot we spoke to at Era (who preferred not to be named) pointed out that while SAR emergencies are infrequent, when they happen, they are serious and require a swift response. So a SAR provider’s role is as much about having workable well-rehearsed plans in place for likely emergency scenarios as it is about carrying out individual missions.
Drilling and exploration continue to take place further and further off-shore, bringing increased risks for oil and gas extractors and increased flight times for SAR operators. Reflecting on the Bond-BP Jigsaw programme, John Fyall, communications manager for Bond, said he sees helicopter SAR as essential to the future of oil and gas extraction: “As long as there are men and women working in the North Sea, there will be a need for the life-saving capability that helicopters and their skilled crews provide.”