Rick Adams investigates training for offshore helicopter operations.
There’s a new dynamic driving helicopter pilot training, and a new geography of locations with names you’ve probably never heard before. The Santos Basin off the coast of Brazil, the Kizomba field in the Atlantic Ocean east of Angola, the KG-D6 block in India’s Bay of Bengal. Jansz, Sleipner, Tamar, Walker Ridge, Gumusut-Kakap, Dunquin Prospect.
These are deepwater or ultra-deepwater sites where energy companies are drilling for oil and natural gas deposits. Seismic engineers casually toss around terms like “Turonian stratigraphic” and “turbidites” that mean nothing to aviators but everything to companies such as ExxonMobil, Shell, BP, Chevron, Total, Anadarko, Hess and others who bet billions on drilling rigs, pipelines, regulatory filings, political risks, environmental challenges, and services contracts such as ferrying workers to the platforms at sea.
In recent years, deepwater (defined generally as more than 400 metres depth) has become the predominant source of new oil and liquid natural gas discoveries. It’s less than 10% of production currently, but nearly two-thirds of discovered deepwater reserves are yet to be exploited. And the average hydrocarbon discovery is considerably larger beyond the continental shelf. That suggests a great deal of deepwater activity in the coming decades. And the activity is literally everywhere around the globe: South America (about one-quarter of current capital expenditures), the Falkland Islands, East Africa, the North Atlantic near Ireland, the North Sea between Scotland and Norway, the Mediterranean near Libya and Israel, Australasia, even the inland Caspian Sea. Industry datakeeper Infield keeps tabs on more than 900 offshore fields.
Long-Range Requirements With oil and gas rigs moving further offshore, it is also changing the requirements for the helicopters which are the primary means of shuttling rig workers to and from the production platforms. Some newer deepwater rigs are more than 200 nautical miles out, and there’s no alternate landing field in between. If the rig helideck is fouled for any reason, the helicopter must be able to return to shore on whatever fuel is left in the tanks. And with as many as 150 workers rotating on and off each rig regularly, it makes economic sense to transport as many as possible with each trip. So energy company flight departments and helicopter services operators are building up their fleets of longer-range rotorcraft with capacities to carry 15-20 passengers.
That means new-generation helicopters such as Sikorsky’s S92, which can traverse up to 430 nm fully loaded with 19 passengers, or the Eurocopter EC225 Super Puma, also good for 19 passengers up to 452 nm. Other helicopters such as Sikorsky’s S76 or AgustaWestland’s new AW189 may reach the furthest rigs but not necessarily with as large a passenger load. The Sikorsky S61 can seat 21 but is more limited in range.
The 13-tonne heavy-lift S92 recently passed 500,000 hours in service, more than 90% of that in the offshore configuration and 54% of that currently in the North Sea. It is part of the fleets of the industry’s largest operators, including Avincus/Bond (two in service, 14 on order), Bristow (49 aircraft with 18 on order and options for 16 more), CHC (37), Cougar, ERA Group, Lider Aviacao in Brazil, PHI (24), and China Southern Airlines.
Eurocopter has deployed more than 900 of the 11-tonne EC225 Super Pumas across 52 countries and logged more than four million hours. However, a pair of ditching incidents last May and October led to grounding of the fleet by Bristow, CHC and Bond. In April, Eurocopter announced an interim fix for the main gearbox issue that should have the EC225s flying again by this fall.
One telltale sign of the future promise of offshore helicopter demand: high-profile investors Michael Dell (Dell Computers) and George Soros (Quantum Strategic Partners) have pumped millions into Waypoint, a helicopter leasing venture launched two years ago by former ERA Helicopter executive Ed Washecka. Waypoint plans to build a fleet of 65 aircraft, “aimed at meeting fast-growing demand for helicopters to ferry workers to and from offshore oil and gas platforms,” according to the Financial Times.
New-Gen Helo Sim Expansion Helicopter training providers have been gearing up to meet the heavy-lift demand. FlightSafety International (FSI) has S92 full flight simulators (FFSs) in operation at their Farnborough, UK; West Palm Beach, Florida, US; and Lafayette, Louisiana, US centres. In March, Sikorsky and FSI announced orders for four more S92 FFSs – to be positioned in Lafayette, Brazil, Norway and Southeast Asia.
FSIs Steve Phillips, VP Communications, said the VITAL X visual system on the simulators includes scenes for offshore operations, as well as a comprehensive model of New York City for executive transport missions and imagery for emergency medical scenarios. “The visual system is optimized for training low-level flight operations, offers increased scene content, vastly improved weather features, and enhanced levels of detail for optimum cueing.”
FlightSafety has implemented glass mirror displays following their 2009 acquisition of Glass Mountain Optics. “Glass mirror displays provide superior optical performance, sharper image clarity, long term reliability, and are night-vision capable. The true collimated images they present are free of visible distortions and artifacts out to mirror edge and ‘ground rush’ distortion in the bottom field of view,” Phillips stated.
CAE announced early last year that it will deploy S92 training in Stavanger, Norway and Sao Paulo, Brazil, and Eurocopter EC-225 training in Sao Paulo by early 2014. The CAE 3000 Series S-92 / EC-225 simulator in Sao Paulo will incorporate a “mothership” with interchangeable cockpits. CAE will offer Simfinity e-learning solutions for both aircraft types, optimising student time at the training centre.
CAE’s new helicopter simulator uses a direct projection display. “The main training advantages of direct projection are greatly improved height and speed cues in close to the surface ground and water operations,” said Rob Lewis, CAE's Vice President and General Manager, Business Aviation, Helicopter and Maintenance Training. “Maneuvers requiring a high degree of visual accuracy, such as helideck and ship landings, ditching scenarios, and touchdown autorotations can be trained with greater fidelity by direct projection visuals. CAE came to the conclusion that a large FOV would be a key element to providing enhanced helicopter flight training, and we designed our new 3000 Series helicopter flight simulator with a dome display to meet this need.”
Eurocopter offers an EC225 FFS, built by Thales (now part of L-3 Link Simulation & Training), at its Helisim Training Academy adjacent to the Marseille-Provence International Airport on France’s southern coast. The Level D device features a 200-degree horizontal by 60-degree vertical field of view visual.
In Aberdeen, Scotland, home to Europe's busiest heliport, Eurocopter has an EC225 FFS with a 210-degree by +30/-50 display. The database includes key offshore operating locations such as the North Sea's Andrew and Miller platforms, along with the CSSO Wellservicer diving support ship. Installed in 2011, the simulator is certified by UK, Canadian, Brazilian and Malaysian authorities.
Eurocopter’s Malaysia Training Centre recently installed the first EC225 FFS in Southeast Asia. Helicópteros do Brasil S.A., or Helibras, a Brazil-based, Eurocopter-owned helicopter manufacturer, announced in April they will build a new training centre in Rio de Janeiro with a combination simulator for the civil EC225 and military EC725 variants.
Frasca International has delivered two Level B EC225 simulators to Bristow in Aberdeen, as well as an S92 device. The Frasca TruVision visual provides a 220 x 60 field of view.
Counting all high-end flight simulators serving the civil helicopter market, the number of training devices available has risen from about a dozen only three to five years ago to more than 60 expected by next year. Other popular models replicated include AgustaWestland’s AW139, Bell Helicopter’s 412, Eurocopter’s AS350 and EC135, and Sikorsky’s S61 and S76.
De Facto Training Standards With so much investment at stake, the International Oil & Gas Producers Association (known as OGP) has been driving the safety standards for pilot training – much more so than government regulators – and has become the de facto global standard bearer.
The OGP is well familiar with the benefits of simulation, applying “digital oilfield” physics-based engineering models to improve processes, monitor operations, manage assets, and even integrate advanced sensors into drilling and production to provide real-time data. They also use simulated training for maritime support vessels and undersea robotics.
No surprise, then, that the OGP aviation safety subcommittee are strong advocates for flight simulators. They conducted a landmark safety review in 2000, as well as annual industry safety performance audits. And the committee’s aviation operations management guidelines, first published in 2008 and updated in 2011, recommend, “Flight crew training should be conducted in a synthetic training device (STD) that replicates the model of aircraft being flown as closely as possible. It is preferred that the device be full motion with a visual screen that provides forward and peripheral imaging.” Recurrent training for pilots is suggested at least every 24 months, and every 12 months is preferred, with an emphasis on cockpit resource management (CRM).
The OGP has also provided members with the Aviation Safety Assessment Mechanism used by airlines, encouraging operators to routinely collect data and apply the scoring formula as a best practice.
Safety Quest Status Seven years ago, the global helicopter industry set an ambitious goal of reducing rotorcraft accidents by 80 percent by 2016. The results thus far are a mixed bag. The 2011 trendline (the most recent available) of 5.7 accidents per 100,000 flight hours is better than the 2001-2005 baseline of 9.4, but still well short of the 1.9 target. Commercial airlines by comparison are far less than 1 percent, and the Flight Safety Foundation reported 2012 was the safest airline year since 1945.
According to the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST), North America (from 9.3 to 3.7), Europe (from 7.1 to 4.8), Africa (from 12.9 to 2.0) and Middle East (from 3.2 to 1.5) helicopter statistics are improving; South America (from 9.7 to 12.8), Asia (from 9.4 to 10.4) and Oceania (from 17.5 to 18.0) are regressing.
One technical improvement which has enhanced safety in the US is Automatic Dependent Surveillance Broadcast (ADS-B), introduced in the Gulf of Mexico in late 2009. Prior to ADS-B, in the absence of offshore radar, air traffic controllers could not see helicopters transiting to oil and gas rigs. They had to rely on estimated positions from relayed reports. The Gulf was divided into 20-mile grids, and only one helicopter at a time was permitted in each grid.
ADS-B uses global positioning satellites (GPS) to provide precise positions both to controllers and other aircraft. Separation minimums have been reduced to five miles between aircraft. Most important, pilots can receive up-to-date weather information for their destination platform.
Not only were there no weather-related US offshore helicopter crashes from 2009-2012, the improved navigation capability of ADS-B will enable quicker evacuation in the event of rig emergencies.
Sikorsky has just received FAA approval for a new automated “rig approach” option for S92 helicopters which is said to reduce the pilot cockpit workload by 60 percent and allows safer instrument approach operations in challenging weather conditions.
Worldwide, there are an estimated 1,700 helicopters serving the oil and gas market. In the Gulf of Mexico alone there are between 5,000 and 10,000 helicopter flights a day to nearly 4,000 platforms.
Training/instruction is traditionally one of the highest categories of helicopter accidents. In Europe, from 2007 to 2011, 18 percent of accidents occurred during flight training, according to the European Helicopter Safety Team (EHEST). This is similar to percentages in North America in analyses conducted in 2000. Nearly half (44 percent) of the training accidents are during the approach and landing phases with the main causes identified as dynamic roll over and autorotations.
In March, EHEST issued a new “Risk Management in Training” guide which focuses on top safety issues, and features a safety risk matrix and the ICAO SHELL model (Software, Hardware, Environment and Liveware) with an engine off landing (autorotation) example.
One reason instruction/training continues to rank high on the accident list is because the majority of helicopter training is conducted in an aircraft, particularly in single-engine helicopters. If the same training were conducted in the complete safety of a flight simulator, those accidents would be eliminated. However, since there are no regulatory type-rating requirements for light helicopter simulators, their availability and use in student training is limited.
Flight training devices (FTDs) and flight navigation and procedures trainers (FNPT) for helicopters such as the Robinson R-22 or Bell 206 are available from several manufacturers, most notably Frasca International and Flyit in the US and QinetiQ’s cueSim and Helicopter Simulators Limited in the UK. Many of the current devices include relatively sophisticated visual systems, thus replicating everything except the helicopter’s motion and vibration.