There are more than 35,000 people living and working offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, supported by nearly 650 helicopters flying as many as 9,000 flights each day. HAI worries about limited radio contact with air traffic controllers below 5,000 feet in areas where the minimum en route altitude is 1,500 feet. Also of concern is a lack of access to current weather data, which prevents IFR operations to several major Gulf oil platforms.
HAI urged its members last month to contact their Congressional representatives to voice strong support for improved communications and weather services in the Gulf. The association’s leaders have become concerned that the FAA officials responsible for reviewing various implementation options under the agency’s proposed nationwide ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast) plan were considering initially launching the program to support high-altitude operations, with a subsequent gradual lowering of its altitude “floor.” This could delay helicopter and general aviation community participation until later in the six-year nationwide implementation plan.
“It would be the easiest call to make,” said one FAA insider, who noted that the airlines were not pushing for ADS-B, and so would be fairly tolerant of delays in the installation of the more than 550 ground stations planned for the U.S. network. The lack of accurate weather data is a key safety concern of Gulf helicopter operators, and while ADS-B would provide weather downlink capability, it’s not something that’s high on the wishlists of airlines, which use their own weather datalink systems.
But as Casey Lowery, chairman of the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference pointed out, “In the Gulf, helicopters operate as many or more daily flights than most commuter airlines. Think of a commuter airplane going from, say, Washington to Nashville, and consider the wealth of services it receives. Then consider a Gulf helicopter pilot going 150 miles offshore. He gets just his departure weather, obtains little or no en route weather, and gets his landing weather from the production foreman on the drilling platform. That’s quite a difference.”
Communications, too, are a challenge. HAI’s briefing on ADS-B states that Gulf helicopters operate within an area that runs 500 miles along the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts, extends out to 150 miles offshore and includes more than 900 existing oil fields, 250,000 miles of pipeline, and over 4,000 offshore structures. ADS-B has the ability to provide radar-like coverage by sending aircraft position information over the service’s broadcast datalink.
HAI officials fear history will repeat itself as the ADS-B program unfolds. In 2003, the offshore industry developed a memorandum of agreement under which the FAA would be provided with free platform space and power for communications and weather reporting equipment, plus free transportation for installation and maintenance technicians. In response, Congress authorized federal funding for fiscal year 2004. However, for reasons still unclear, the required FAA budget appropriation has never materialized. Disappointingly to HAI, draft ADS-B implementation recommendations prepared last year for the FAA’s top level Joint Resources Council still placed Gulf requirements as a mid-range activity in the six-year program.
In an Aug. 8, 2005, letter to FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, then-HAI president Roy Resavage urged that safety initiatives in Alaska under the agency’s Flight Plan be extended to the Gulf, where “operations are severely hampered by the lack of adequate weather information, inadequate low-altitude communications and surveillance capabilities, which directly contribute to unnecessarily high accident rates.” He added that “major oil companies and helicopter operators in the Gulf of Mexico stand ready to sign our MOA and move forward.” In an August 26 letter to DOT Secretary Norman Mineta, eight Louisiana and Texas Congressmen echoed Resavage’s concerns.
In sending HAI’s January Congressional Alert to members, HAI president Matt Zuccaro stated, “A proven plan developed internally by the FAA exists to utilize ADS-B technology in the Gulf that will resolve high- and low-altitude communications deficiencies, and the prudent decision is for the FAA to fund improvements for helicopter operations, as well as commercial airliners. Helicopter pilots in the Gulf of Mexico deserve the same air traffic control services that are available in the rest of the National Airspace System.”
Separately, AOPA president Phil Boyer issued a strong endorsement of ADS-B’s value to his organization’s membership, which would benefit significantly from the system’s weather services.
At press time, it appeared that individual members within the ATO’s senior management ranks could be heeding HAI’s concerns, but opinions are said to be far from unanimous. The ATO’s final recommendations to the Joint Resources Council will be made in April, with the JRC’s go-ahead decision on the ADS-B implementation plan expected in June.