Safety clampdown for North Sea helicopter flights

OFFSHORE helicopters will be banned from taking off in severe weather as part of the biggest shake-up in flight safety in the history of Britain’s oil and gas industry.

Helicopter flights in severe sea conditions have been banned. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Helicopter flights in severe sea conditions have been banned. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Helicopter flights in severe sea conditions have been banned. Picture: Phil Wilkinson

A major review by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is also calling for a limit on the size and number of offshore workers boarding North Sea flights to help save lives following a series of fatal crashes.

The changes are expected to cost the industry millions of pounds and lead to additional offshore flights and the need for extra aircraft to be brought in by the big three North Sea helicopter firms.

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Pending further safety improvements to helicopters, oil rig workers will only be able to fly if they are seated next to an emergency window exit and aircraft will not be allowed to take off when waves are higher than 20ft.

The restrictions – which will come into force on 1 June – will only be lifted if helicopters are fitted with extra flotation devices or passengers are provided with better emergency breathing systems.

From 1 April next year, the regulatory authority is also calling for a limit, yet to be specified, to be applied to the size of offshore workers allowed to board North Sea helicopter flights. It is suggesting that the restriction be applied to allow all oil rig workers to escape through push-out window exits.

Robert Paterson, health, safety and employment issues director at trade association Oil & Gas UK, said last night that the changes recommended by the aviation regulatory authority represented a major challenge to the North Sea oil and gas industry and the helicopter ­companies.

He said: “We certainly welcome the report but some of the recommendations are going to be quite a challenge, particularly in the timescale that the CAA are talking about. The process of managing some of these changes needs to be done carefully in a considered and systematic way.”

The CAA estimates that the seating restrictions will mean many offshore helicopters will have to cut their passenger ­capacity by between 15 and 20 per cent.

Mr Paterson said the restrictions would mean extra offshore flights and more aircraft having to be deployed for changing the crews on oil rigs.

The industry is already forecasting an increase in the number of flights this year by about six per cent He admitted: “That in itself will represent a challenge.”

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Mr Paterson said it was impossible to put a cost on implementing the changes.

He added: “Safety does ­remain our number-one priority. We need to sit down and understand this and it would be ­entirely wrong to speculate on what the cost might be. It ­certainly won’t be without cost.”

A spokesman for the CAA, said the authority’s demands were not unattainable.

He said: “We have looked at this primarily in terms of what needs to be done to achieve an enhanced level of safety and get confidence back amongst the workforce. But we don’t think that any of the recommendations are either unrealistic or unreasonable.

“There is an element of cost in the medium term for the modifications to the helicopters and an element of cost, short-term, on the seating restrictions.”

The wide-ranging review was announced by the CAA last September after a Super Puma helicopter ditched into the sea off Shetland’s Sumburgh Head, claiming the lives of four oil rig ­workers.

The review, which was undertaken jointly by the Norwegian CAA and the European Aviation Safety Agency (Easa), also focused on the causes of another four helicopter accidents and ­incidents in the North Sea over the past five years, including a fatal crash in April 2009 in which a Super Puma plummeted from the sky, killing all 16 people on board.

The report has made 32 ­recommendations for safety ­improvements in North Sea ­helicopter operations.

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CAA chairwoman Dame Deirdre Hutton said yesterday she expected the three main North Sea helicopter companies – CHC, Bristow and Bond – the North Sea industry and the European Aviation Safety Agency to implement them as soon as possible.

She said: “For our part, the CAA is already taking forward actions directly under our ­control. We will monitor and ­report regularly on progress, so that people can have confidence that these important changes are being implemented as quickly as possible.”

The recommendations were welcomed by the offshore and pilots’ unions. But last night union leaders and Labour politicians renewed their calls for a full public inquiry into helicopter safety to prevent further tragedies following the loss of 20 lives since April 2009.

Jim McAuslan, the general-secretary of the British Airline Pilots’ Association, said: “Pilots will work with the CAA and operators to improve helicopter safety in the North Sea and ensure there is no backsliding as memories of recent accidents fade.”

He added: “We maintain our call for an independent ­inquiry to bring all of this work ­together.”

Bob Crow, the general-secretary of the RMT union, said: “RMT need to know more from the CAA on exactly how they intend to enforce these recommendations and we continue to demand a public inquiry into the offshore oil and gas industry as a whole, including offshore helicopter operations.”

Frank Doran, the Labour MP for Aberdeen North who has been pressing for a full public inquiry, praised the report.

He said: “I particularly ­welcome the comments made in relation to ditching requirement. This report is a welcome step forward which I hope will be accepted and implemented by the oil and gas industry and the helicopter operators, as well as the regulators.”

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But he warned: “It still does not answer the fundamental questions which have been posed by the series of incidents resulting in five major accidents in the last four years and 20 deaths.”

CAA safety director Mark Swan confirmed seating restrictions could limit the number of available seats on some offshore flights by up to 20 per cent.

A catalogue of accidents

August 2013: Four people are killed and 14 survive when a Super Puma AS332 L2 helicopter with 16 passengers and two crew plunges from the sky on its approach to Sumburgh airport on Shetland.

October 2012: All 17 passengers and two crew are safely rescued after a Super Puma EC225 ditches off Shetland.

May 2012: All 14 passengers and crew on a Super Puma EC225 are rescued after the aircraft ditches around about 30 miles off the Aberdeenshire coast.

April 2009: All 16 people on board a Super Puma AS332 L2 are killed when it crashes into the North Sea while returning from the BP Miller platform in what was the second-worst helicopter disaster in the history of the North Sea.

February 2009: All 18 people on board are rescued and survive after a Super Puma EC225 ditches in the North Sea as it approaches platform in BP’s ETAP field.

Captain Colin Milne: Proper regulating and safety forum a major step forward

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Assuming that all the recommendations are acted upon, this will be a major step forward in offshore safety. The review incorporates pretty well everything that our committee recommended and we strongly welcome this report.

We particularly welcome the formation of the new safety forum which the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will lead on and we look forward to participating actively in that and indeed ensuring that the recommendations are acted on as soon as is practicably possible.

Our key aim is to keep helicopters flying and not going in the water – that is what is going to lead to the safest outcome for everybody.

Aircraft in general are not certificated to operate beyond sea state six [rough seas] but the CAA is now going to mandate that situation. There has always been a bit of grey area and we, the pilots, have not been happy with the oil and gas industry’s reliance on a device called a Dacon rescue scoop – a big net dangling over the side of a vessel – to get people safely out of the water in the event that they go in above sea state six.

I know the vast majority of people will be looking at this review from a passenger point of view and all of the improvements that the CAA is recommending I am sure will be welcomed by the offshore workforce. But we as pilots think the CAA taking leadership of offshore flight safety and properly regulating the industry is key. Establishing standardisation of best practice and operational procedures for helicopter operations is going to be the key way to stop us having a repetition of accidents.

The CAA taking control of the certification of helidecks, which it has never done directly before, will ensure that all offshore helidecks are brought up to the highest standards.

The main recommendations will address the question of survivability. But we don’t want aircraft to go into the water in the first place. That is best way to survive, but I think these recommendations are the best chance we have got of preventing further accidents and tragedies and saving lives.

The end customer – the oil companies – will ultimately have to pay for all this. There is bound to be a cost – but what price safety?

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• Captain Colin Milne is chairman of the helicopter affairs committee of the pilots’ union BALPA