On September 29 the Norwegian oil company Statoil issued the report on its investigation into the April 29 fatal crash of a CHC Airbus Helicopters EC225LP. The helicopter was transporting 11 of its personnel from the Gulfaks B offshore platform in the Norwegian continental shelf (NCS) to Flesland. It crashed en route after the main rotor assembly separated from the aircraft in flight, near the small island of Turoy, west of Bergen, killing the passengers and the two pilots aboard and prompting a worldwide grounding of the fleet in June. The ban was lifted by the EASA earlier this month, but it remains in force in the UK and Norway. Investigators for the Norwegian Accident Investigation Board (AIBN) have yet to formally determine the cause of the crash, but the EASA has cleared the helicopter for return to service following replacement of a main gearbox planet gear and a heightened inspection regime.
The purpose of the Statoil report is not to determine the cause of the crash, but to evaluate its own related helicopter commercial and safety policies and to make recommendations for improvement. The findings provide a window into the economic pressures North Sea helicopter operators have been facing in the current depressed global energy environment.
Activity in the North Sea has diminished greatly in recent years. Statoil notes that passenger volume, flight hours and the service fleet have all declined significantly since 2013 in the NCS, with the passenger count dropping to a projected 151,000 this year from 211,000; flying hours shrinking to 19,000 from 25,500; and the aggregate fleet in the region standing at 13-14 from 18-19. Statoil notes that the Sikorsky S-92 was already the dominant helicopter in the region for passenger transport, with only two Airbus H225s in that role, but five H225s flying in the SAR mission. Two main operators service the region, Bristow and CHC. Statoil currently procures helicopter services from Bristow Norway and Integra Leasing (with CHC Helikopter Service a subcontractor) via five- to 10-year extendable contracts with individual contracts for flights from Stavanger, Bergen, Florø, Kristiansund, Brønnøysund and Hammerfest. Statoil’s Norway-based operations and activities represent about half of the helicopter transport on the NCS.
Statoil’s report notes several safety “vulnerabilities,” beginning with its own oversight of helicopter operations. The company notes that its helicopter safety oversight is currently conducted by four experienced people nearing retirement age, making the team “capable but vulnerable.” It further notes that the terms of its commercial contracts with operators might create safety vulnerabilities.
“The investigation team has assessed whether there are sides to the helicopter contracts that can harm safety. Related factors that have been highlighted are how the helicopter contracts are entered into and administered, together with the contracts’ conditions regarding how much time can pass between flights, and the consequences of delays. An additional factor concerns the helicopter operator’s “economic and financial condition.” The latter appears to be a direct reference to CHC, the operator of the accident helicopter, which filed for bankruptcy six days after the crash.
Stretching It Too Far
The report goes on to state, “The contracts specify that the helicopter operators do not receive payment in full if the transport services are delivered too late or are not delivered at all. The definition of ‘too late’ and ‘not delivered’ varies from contract to contract: for example, a service may be classified as ‘too late’ if it is delayed by more than two hours, whilst a service may be classified as ‘not delivered’ if the delay exceeds eight hours. The price for a service cannot be reduced if the delay or ‘non-delivery’ occurs as a result of weather or factors on Statoil’s side.
“Several of the individuals that the investigation team has spoken with have questioned whether the ‘penalty’ regime may negatively affect helicopter safety. Some have maintained that the system can contribute to stress amongst pilots and mechanics, and therefore increase the risk of making mistakes or ‘stretching it too far.’ Further, it has been pointed out that work operations can be disturbed if resources are redirected in order to avoid a penalty. It has also been indicated that requirements for shorter turnaround time and fewer reserve helicopters will lead to an increase in the total number of potential delays, and therefore also an increase in the total number of situations where the aspects of the penalty regime mentioned above may occur.” The report recommends devising alternate means to encouraging punctual service that do not jeopardize safety.
The report notes that new contracts in the region were to cut the turnaround time between flights from 60 minutes to 45 and in some cases 30 minutes and questions whether that provides adequate time to conduct the necessary safety checks, including checking the onboard Hums for vibration measurements. In light of the Turoy accident, implementation of these truncated turnaround times has been postponed. Upon analysis, the report dismisses any potential negative safety consequence of shorter turnaround times, but does acknowledge, “It cannot be ignored that shorter turnaround time, in combination with other factors, may possibly still contribute to negative effects. Shorter turnaround time can, for example, result in more frequent potential delay situations that, again, may result in the possible negative effects of the penalty system occurring more often.”
The report goes on to note how myriad safety sins caused by an operator’s weak financial condition might manifest themselves. Initially underpricing the contract constitutes “a risk when carrying out the contract, for example if the price indicates poor quality of services or constitutes a risk to the helicopter operators’ financial position.” Statoil seems to at least tacitly acknowledge its role in CHC’s demise, when it states, “During the contract period Statoil can make commercial dispositions that affect the helicopter operators’ financial position, including cancelling the contract or renegotiating the rates. A reduced need for helicopters, combined with a need to reduce costs, has led to an increase in the scope of such dispositions in recent years.” Statoil seems to understand how these economic pressures can conspire to create a less than optimum operational safety environment, acknowledging “the relationship between reduced reserve capacity, increased use and flight time for each individual helicopter, a greater degree of ‘cannibalising’ parts (also known as ‘robbery’ of parts from helicopters needing more extensive maintenance, to supply other helicopters with more pressing needs), a challenging parts situation, a system with compensation in the event of delays and reduced turnaround time. The question, as many have formulated it, is ‘When are you stretching it too far?’
“The NCAA (Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority) has expressed concern that a weak economic position and reduction of helicopter operator personnel can lead to the withering of a safety culture. The (Statoil) investigation team believes that some of these points can be addressed by introducing more stringent minimum requirements in the contracts, to prevent positions related to long-term safety-related work from being cut down.”
Statoil concludes that it must regularly “conduct a holistic assessment in association with helicopter operators in order to improve understanding of the relationship between technical and commercial factors that, either individually or combined, can affect safety.”