How new flight-following helps Alaskan operators

 - January 29, 2007, 5:50 AM

Until the start of the new millennium, the business of monitoring helicopters as they flew over inhospitable expanses of land or water could be a haphazard affair, especially when the helicopter was out of radar or radio contact. Given the altitudes at which rotorcraft routinely fly, that accounts for a large proportion of airborne time and, as such, was something that many pilots preferred not to think about.

Over the past five years, tracking systems such as Outerlink’s CP-2 satellite link have transformed flight safety and boosted the confidence of, among others, offshore pilots flying over the Gulf of Mexico and EMS crews over the vast wooded areas of West Virginia. Both groups of aviators can now be confident that someone knows where they are and, if anything should go wrong, can react almost immediately.

Technology has matured since the CP-2 system, which employs two geostationary satellites, was introduced and its limitations are now apparent in far northern latitudes. Air Logistics director of operations Jeff Reed says that he had to look at other options to provide a reliable service for his crews, who fly over the mountains and permafrost in Alaska.

“Until last year, word of an incident could take hours to reach us; we might not be aware of it until a crew missed a check call from the next pump station–as many as three hours after they took off from the last one. Now we have a Blue Sky Network (BSN) D1000 system for en route flight following, which uses the global Iridium constellation, fitted in a couple of our aircraft and the rest should have it by the start of next summer.” BSN supports near real-time flight tracking, two-way messaging and telemetry reporting.

“We fly at low levels in areas where there is no voice communication, so it’s great for the pilots to know that someone back at base is monitoring their position, essentially in real-time, and that, if need be, they can send text messages. It is certainly better than the old routine. We looked at Outerlink’s system but we were too far north to reliably pick up their satellite. Blue Sky takes a GPS position and then transmits to the Iridium constellation, which has global coverage.”

BSN’s Larry Lippert explained, “The Outerlink service runs off two MSAT satellites in a geosynchronous orbit of some 19,500 miles. This far north, it requires a stronger, amplified antenna that has to be placed somewhere on the airframe where it is not shielded by the rotor. Even with an amplifier, it does not provide a reliable signal north of Fairbanks, situated roughly in the center of the state. On the other hand, Iridium satellites orbit at 485 miles so you can get away with a much smaller antenna–in fact Iridium and GPS can be received through the same three-inch device.”

Outerlink’s spokesman, Charles Wright, conceded that the strength of its service did drop off north of the Fairbanks area, and said the company is looking at ways to upgrade it.

Monitoring the Alaska Pipeline
Air Logistics depends on single-engine Bell LongRangers for its main onshore operation, in support of the Trans-Alaska Pipeline System (TAPS), which currently delivers 25 percent of total U.S. domestic oil production. Its corporate and main operational base is at Fairbanks and it has outposts at Prudhoe Bay (the oil’s source, to the north) and Valdez (the refinery, near Anchorage to the south). From there, crews conduct weekly inspection overflights and maintenance visits along the 800-mile-long pipeline that runs roughly north-south between the two points.

Four L3 LongRangers and a BO 105 are employed year round on the TAPS contract, and Air Logistics brings in an additional two or three to take advantage of the long summer days. Pilots fly their two-week duty periods under day VFR only, so duty hours are driven by weather and the hours of daylight.

The landscape ranges from featureless arctic tundra near the north to mountain ranges climbing to more than 10,000 feet–the pipeline crosses three of these and some 600 rivers during its passage south (see sidebar). Most of the pump valves along the pipeline are remotely operated via generator-powered microwave repeater sites, which need fuel that, in many cases, can be delivered only by helicopter.

Even in midwinter north of the Arctic Circle when the sun does not shine, there is enough twilight for a “reasonable” session of VFR flying. Pilots navigate the pipeline via GPS and by reference to mileposts and station markers.

The sheer cost of setting up a drilling operation off the Alaskan coastline underlies the lack of offshore work in the state. There is also the risk of oil leaks becoming trapped under ice, rendering clean-ups next to impossible.

While offshore work is limited and opposed by local inhabitants, there is still a lot of drilling in the North Slope of Alaska and, today, only the coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and a small area around Teshekpuk Lake remain off limits to the oil industry.

If the warming of the atmosphere continues, newly exposed land will absorb more heat than ice, further accelerating the process of global warming and making the climate and terrain more hospitable for pilots. For now, however, the climate remains unforgiving, so flight-following equipment became an absolute must-have for the Air Logistics crews from the day it became available.