The UK CAA has unveiled a series of dramatic measures stemming from the review it launched last September to improve the safety of offshore helicopter operations in the North Sea. Its primary goal is to improve the odds of passengers and crew surviving a ditching, but the exhaustive 293-page report also addresses pilot training, helidecks and a host of other safety topics. The requirements could present North Sea operators with significant cost and operational challenges.
Effective June 1, operators will be allowed to carry passengers only in seats located next to emergency exit windows. Other seats may be used if “helicopters are fitted with extra flotation devices or passengers are provided with better emergency breathing systems (EBS),” the CAA said. Beginning in 2016, no offshore flight will be allowed unless all occupants wear the improved EBS or the aircraft is equipped to float on its side.
The CAA proposes that, in addition to the usual four floats at the bottom of the airframe, helicopters should carry two more floats mounted high on the airframe to allow them to float on their side rather than turn turtle, which too often causes passengers to drown.
In the past the side-floating concept has stirred debate in the offshore industry. Trials with human subjects showed it is much easier to escape from a helicopter floating on its side than from one that is floating inverted. However, in 2011 Airbus Helicopters (then Eurocopter) expressed concern about inadvertent deployment of a float mounted near the main rotor. What’s more, floats mounted near hot turbine exhaust would have to be made of heat-resistant material, creating a weight penalty of perhaps 200 pounds.
A UK CAA spokesman told AIN, “This is less of an issue now. Thanks to the technologies manufacturers have developed, installing upper floats is feasible.” He noted that no helicopter, in the North Sea or likely anywhere else, has yet been fitted with such upper floats. He said that developing them and retrofitting the current fleet would probably take three to five years.
To comply with UK rules as of June 1, the quickest solution is for operators to use improved EBS. Such improved devices must be deployable underwater within the time an individual can typically hold his breath, the report said. The improved EBS are known as Category A, as opposed to the most common Category B. One type of Category A device is already used by commercial offshore operators in Canada.
The report emphasized that the [Category B] EBS currently deployed are unlikely to be adequate in the event of a water impact requiring deployment at very short notice or underwater. A Category A EBS is more like a scuba system and provides passengers with immediate oxygen, the CAA spokesman said. Current Category B re-breather systems require some preparation before use.
A key issue will be to find suppliers for large quantities of this equipment. Given the seat capacity of the North Sea helicopter fleet, AIN estimates the number of EBS required could be between 1,500 and 2,000. An EBS expert at Aqualung, one supplier of category A devices, told AIN delivering such a large number by June is “doable but really tight.” A spokeswoman for another supplier, Survitec, declined to provide delivery lead time. She suggested that passengers might be trained to use Category B EBS more swiftly but training them would take time, too. The CAA itself believes implementing the measure could take one to two years.
In any case, operators have to face the prospect of mandatory empty seats. According to the helicopter safety steering group (a committee part of the Step Change in Safety organization in the UK oil-and-gas industry), the seating capacity of the North Sea helicopter fleet will be reduced by about 40 percent. “This might mean that there will need to be more flights offshore to accommodate the reduced seating capacity,” the group said. The CAA sees less impact and estimates the rule will reduce North Sea seating capacity by only 10 to 20 percent.
Sea State Certification
To reduce the threat of capsizing after a ditching, flights in the most severe sea conditions (above sea state 6) will be prohibited beginning June 1. As of September the requirement will be even stricter, as operations will be prohibited when the sea conditions exceed the certified ditching performance of the helicopter. For most modern types, which are certified to sea state 6, the regulation will ground 1.4 percent of operations, the report estimates.
The CAA also suggests that the way in which ditching compliance is demonstrated is deficient. For example, a demonstration might use a downscaled model in a water tank, with smooth and regular (albeit relatively high) waves. The UK CAA is thus considering a downgrade of the claimed buoyancy performance of existing helicopters by one sea state. “We want the airframers to give more evidence to prove their claim...or make it more realistic,” the spokesman said.
Other practical changes include adding hand holds next to push-out windows and restricting passenger size. The latter measure will be enforced from April 1 next year to ensure body size does not exceed the dimensions of push-out window exits.
Life rafts and lifejackets are to be improved, too. The CAA wants to make sure that survivors can launch life rafts regardless of the helicopter’s attitude, and it will mandate that all life jackets be self-righting.
The CAA, citing excessive differences in the way different companies operate the same types of helicopter, also wants to see more harmonization in pilot training. The review found an issue with loss of control associated with sophistication and automation.
Finally, the CAA intends to assume responsibility for the certification of UK helidecks. It expressed concern that recently introduced helicopters have been permitted to operate on older helidecks that were built for lighter machines. The CAA will review, by the third quarter, whether such operations should continue.
There are 228 helideck-equipped fixed installations and up to 100 mobile helidecks on the UK continental shelf. The industry’s core workforce (those spending 100 or more nights per year offshore) numbered 25,760 in 2012. In the same year, more than a million passengers flew on 141,000 sectors in 86,000 flight hours.
Asked about the economic impact of the measures, the CAA spokesman cited no figures but said that all actions and recommendations are achievable. Operators and manufacturers provided little reaction. Sikorsky, Airbus Helicopters, Bristow and Bond Offshore said they are studying the review’s actions and recommendations.
Does Norway do it better?
A recently released UK CAA report compares the UK’s safety performance with that of Norway, its neighbor for North Sea oil-and-gas activity. At 0.34, the UK’s fatal accident rate per 100,000 hours appears to be three times that of Norway. The calculation was based on seven accidents in the 20 years between 1992 and 2012. However, statisticians said the rate difference on that small a number of accidents is not significant.
The CAA intends to establish an offshore helicopter safety forum this year to drive forward the actions it has identified and liaise with Norway to share experiences and best practices.