HAI urges safety changes for Gulf of Mexico operators

 - December 6, 2007, 6:36 AM

In January, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) urged its members to press their Congressional representatives to support improved communications and weather services over the Gulf of Mexico.

HAI was concerned that senior FAA officials charged with reviewing various implementation options under the agency’s proposed nationwide ADS-B plan (see AIN, November, page 6) were considering initially launching the program to support high-altitude operations and then gradually lowering the altitude “floor.” This could delay helicopter and general aviation community participation until midway through the six-year nationwide implementation plan.

The agency’s proposed plan is the simplest and least expensive and time-consuming for the FAA to implement. “It would be the easiest call to make,” said one FAA insider, who noted that the airlines were not pushing for ADS-B and therefore would be fairly tolerant of delays in the installation of the more than 550 ground stations planned for the U.S. network, and of any initial teething troubles in the system’s uplinked services.

“In fact,” he observed, “the uplinked weather data, which is a major general aviation benefit of ADS-B, isn’t going to be available to the airlines anyway through their mode-S transponders, and what’s more, the airlines don’t need it since they have their own weather services. So that’s a big technical issue that the FAA wouldn’t have to worry about right away.”

But it is precisely that viewpoint that worries HAI, which favors simultaneous implementation of the program for high- and low-altitude environments. The lack of accurate weather data is a key safety concern of Gulf helicopter operators, whose weather data is transmitted on a different radio frequency from the ADS-B ground stations and in signal formats that are incompatible with airline ATC transponders.

But as Casey Lowery, chairman of the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference, told AIN, “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. According to HAI, Gulf helicopters operate within an area that runs 500 miles along the Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama coasts; extends 150 miles offshore; and includes some 900 existing oil fields, 250,000 miles of pipeline and more than 4,000 offshore structures. The brief points out that more than 35,000 people live and work offshore, supported by nearly 650 helicopters flying up to 9,000 flights each day.

HAI states that there are many locations within this area where operators cannot maintain radio contact with FAA air traffic controllers below 5,000 feet, even though the minimum en route altitude is 1,500 feet. In addition, lack of current weather data prevents IFR operations to several major Gulf platforms.

HAI fears that history will repeat itself as the ADS-B program unfolds. In 2003 the offshore industry developed a memorandum of agreement under which the industry would provide the FAA with free platform space and power for communications and weather reporting equipment, as well as free transportation for installation and maintenance technicians.

In response, Congress authorized federal funding for FY04. However, for reasons still unclear, the required FAA budget appropriation has never materialized. Disappointingly to HAI, draft Air Traffic Organization (ATO) 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 the agency to extend its “Flight Plan” safety initiatives in Alaska 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 HAI’s January Congressional Alert to members, HAI president Matt Zuccaro wrote, “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 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.”

At press time, according to informed observers and from ATO briefing material obtained by AIN, it appeared that individual members within the ATO’s senior management ranks could be listening to HAI’s concerns, but opinions are said to be far from unanimous. The ATO will make its final recommendations to the Joint Resources Council next month, with the council’s go-ahead decision on the ADS-B implementation plan expected in June.