North Sea Safety Effort Sparks Cooperation among Operators, Manufacturers

 - July 20, 2015, 3:56 PM

The North Sea helicopter industry is striving to improve safety—shifting the emphasis from accident survivability to prevention—by establishing an unprecedented level of cooperation. Not only have operators stopped competing on safety, but now helicopter manufacturers are also cooperating in areas they previously regarded as proprietary.

After a series of ditchings and crashes between 2009 and 2013, initial action targeted short-term technical issues such as emergency breathing systems (EBS) and the adequacy of seating and exits relative to passengers wearing bulky survival gear. The first annual general meeting of the HeliOffshore association took place in May in Lisbon and might signal the beginning of a longer-term cultural change for the sector. While the UK North Sea remains a center of attention, the scrutiny could benefit operations worldwide. About 150 senior representatives of HeliOffshore’s 60 members gathered for the meeting in Portugal’s capital city, according to CEO Gretchen Haskins. “Safety is a collaborative issue so people are setting aside competition to work together on safety,” she told AIN.

At the top of the list is automation. Sikorsky makes it clear its work on the S-92’s flight crew operations manual (FCom) follows the lead of what Airbus Helicopters did for the H225. Thanks to the framework HeliOffshore provides, the “first cycle of learning” for the creation of a helicopter FCom can be used by all members. “I credit Guillaume Faury [Airbus Helicopters’ CEO] for getting the H225 manual in play,” said Shane Eddy, Sikorsky president for commercial systems and services. “HeliOffshore’s support and focus ensure both the successful introduction and the productive use of new rotorcraft FComs,” he added.

“All the big four manufacturers [Sikorsky, Airbus, Bell and AgustaWestland] are participating in the automation working group, as they are all committed to start working on their first FCom for aircraft in the offshore fleet worldwide,” Haskins said. Sikorsky intends to start with the S-92 FCom, to be published in February or March next year, and follow with the S-76. Airbus is to issue the H175’s FCom by year-end.

The other two OEMs have such manuals in the works, too, with AgustaWestland set to establish its “automation philosophy” in September, followed by Bell in December, according to a timeline that appears on HeliOffshore’s website. Haskins said the process takes approximately one year for each helicopter type.

Sikorsky’s Eddy reminded the audience that an FCom is supposed to make it clear how the airframer intended the aircraft to be operated, taking full advantage of the automation built in. In the H225 document, Airbus uses a color code to show what was already in the flight manual and what is specific to the FCom. “It is living material and may be modified along with the hardware and as we receive operational feedback,” said Régis Magnac, Airbus Helicopters operational marketing director.

Such literature might become more consistent in the future, suggested Sikorsky’s Eddy. “In a perfect world, you would have a certain level of standardization among FComs; it could be a trend in the longer term,” he said.

Another area of progress has been H-Taws. “Not all helicopter types, but at least the larger ones, are equipped,” HeliOffshore’s Haskins said. A working group is joining with the British CAA and the international association of oil and gas producers to upgrade the existing system. Up to eight seconds of H-Taws warning time could be added. “We are using feedback from flight data monitoring and we have performed simulator testing,” Haskins added.

Pilot and Automation Interface

The focus on automation as the top priority does not negate the value of manual flying skills. “In the helicopter automation management debate, the discussion about potential loss of manual flying skills is as relevant as it is in the fixed-wing world, and we are looking at the lessons learned there to ensure manual flying skills are maintained,” Haskins said. AIN understands this includes recovery from unusual attitudes.

A wrong deck landing rarely results in harm but can indicate a loss of situational awareness, Haskins said. Operators are sharing their data to detect patterns: is there a link to time of day, weather conditions or geographic locations? “Sharing such information is a great sign of the cultural shift,” Haskins emphasized.

In operational performance monitoring, a study mirroring one currently under way with some major fixed-wing operators will observe helicopter flight crews. The goal is to gain a better understanding of their interaction with automation, particularly in the monitoring role. An eye-tracking device in a simulator is being used to watch the pilot’s and copilot’s visual scan. The survey will eventually help guide instruction on monitoring skills and visual scan training.

Another venue for helicopter stakeholders to meet has long been the Helicopter Safety Steering Group (HSSG) in the North Sea oil-and-gas industry’s Step Change In Safety organization. “We’ll see more of this collaborative approach,” Step Change In Safety executive director Les Linklater told AIN. He noted there are “still a lot of things to do” in firefighting, helideck lighting and so on. However, “these are technical issues–you just have to find the right technology and the right timing,” and they won’t be as externally visible as a change of EBS.

Involved in the HSSG are two of the three helicopter manufacturers that have helicopters flying in the UK North Sea: Sikorsky and Airbus Helicopters. The third one, AgustaWestland, is not participating. “We work hard to get them into the process,” Linklater said. The Italian company did not answer AIN’s requests for comment.

Airbus Dauphin Approved for Sea State 6

The Airbus Helicopters Dauphin (AS365 and H155) has joined the H225 in sea state 6 certification. Suitably reinforced and tested, its flotation system was upgraded from sea state 4, Airbus Helicopters operational marketing director Régis Magnac told AIN. The extra weight is said to be negligible. All Dauphin operators in the North Sea have been offered the retrofit kit.