The survival of all on board the helicopter that ditched into the North Sea 125 miles east of Aberdeen on February 18 is testament to the UK oil&gas industry’s hard work over the last two decades in ensuring the safety of its offshore workers.
Offshore safety performance continues to improve and the industry is committed to maintaining that improvement and investment in safety through the current economic downturn.
Many offshore workers consider their journey to an installation the most risky part of their work offshore. In reality, there are risks associated with every mode of transport and, statistically, the risk of travelling by helicopter is comparable to that of driving a car. Moreover, the industry’s commitment to improving offshore safety performance has made UK offshore helicopter operations the safest in the world.
So how did the UKCS become the safest helicopter region in the world? The short answer is investment – investment in research, investment in new systems and investment in new aircraft. Many tens of millions of pounds have been spent over the years to make sure we are using the most modern aircraft available, employing the most recent technology and safety systems and providing the most comprehensive training. On top of which we continue to invest in helicopter safety research to identify potential areas for further improvement.
Workers flying offshore today use survival equipment which has been the subject of continuous development and improvement. Even the basic survival training, which everyone undertakes – and which no doubt helped everyone to escape safely from the helicopter that ditched recently – is regularly updated and reassessed.
In the last two years, companies have added new, state-of-the-art helicopter types to their fleet which have much more sophisticated instrumentation and safety systems. Because they are more powerful and fuel-efficient, they have greater range and load-carrying capability, which gives them greater safety margins on take-off and better capability in poor weather.
As well as these new aircraft, the industry is working on three projects to improve defect detection, communication and air traffic control. These will all come to fruition during 2009.
On the first, the industry is planning to introduce an advanced Health and Usage Monitoring System (HUMS) for the UK offshore helicopter fleet. The original HUMS, which came out of oil industry-sponsored research, is an anomaly detection system that is effective in the early detection and prevention of catastrophic mechanical failures. It monitors engine and gearbox performance and also includes built-in test and flight data recording functions, probably making it the most significant safety improvement to helicopter operations of the last decade.
The advanced version of this system, again developed through co-operation between the industry and the Civil Aviation Authority, will be introduced during 2009. The new system will be able to detect faults that are not being highlighted by current HUMS analysis, improving HUMS effectiveness in detecting defects from about 69% to about 86%, providing a clear warning well before any compromise to safety.
Later this spring, Oil & Gas UK and National Air Traffic Services (NATS) will launch a new helicopter tracking system for the North Sea, the first in the world to be used for offshore operations.
This scheme enables helicopter positions to be displayed to the air traffic controllers on their radar display without using radar. This is done through a multi-lateration system tracking offshore helicopters which are out of range of traditional radar equipment by analysing the signal emitted from the helicopter’s normal transponder using three or more receivers located on offshore platforms.
To provide maximum coverage, equipment is being fitted to 16 host platforms, which have been divided into four clusters, each comprising four platforms. Once a transponder-fitted helicopter enters the area of a cluster, it responds to a signal which is then detected by receivers on each of the four platforms. This data is then sent to the control tower building (CTB) at Aberdeen Airport via the oil company data links.
Computer analysis at the CTB determines the helicopter position by triangulation. Only three signals need to be received in order to provide a position, but the fourth signal both increases accuracy and gives some redundancy should a signal not be received. A big advantage of the system is that, should a fixed-wing aircraft be in the area, it too will be displayed on the screen in the control tower, drastically reducing the risk of collisions or near-miss incidents, such as the near miss between a helicopter and a military aircraft in 2004.
2009 will also see the completion of a project to improve voice communication with offshore helicopters, extending the existing re-broadcasting facilities. Historically, air traffic service to offshore helicopters has been limited by the range of VHF radio voice communications.
Originally, all services were provided by land-based transmitters around the coasts. To improve the areas of coverage, re-broadcasting stations were introduced in 1990, enabling the controllers to speak directly with helicopter crews through the use of offshore radios linked to shore. This system works satisfactorily, but the coverage has some gaps and original equipment is becoming obsolete, so this year will see the system upgraded using an increased number of offshore platforms as re-broadcast units.
It is expected that all the new re-broadcasting units will be in operation by the end of June, revolutionising voice communication with offshore helicopters.
In the 30 years since the start of oil-related offshore flights in the UKCS much has changed. Many millions of passenger miles have been travelled across the North Sea. Accidents in the basin have been, thankfully, rare and their relatively low number has meant that the UK industry’s safety record in this area is second to none. This has been achieved by constant work to improve all the elements of helicopter travel.
Recent events serve to sharpen our focus on the importance of maintaining this work and retaining our position as the safest place in the world for helicopter operations. The industry will not rest on its laurels. It is determined to continually improve and, notwithstanding the economic downturn, 2009 will see additional multimillion-pound investment to further improve helicopter safety.
Chris Allen is health, safety and environment director at Oil & Gas UK