Posted 12 years 117 days ago ago by Admin
GOMER: Working in the Gulf of Mexico - Part 2
Article, Photos, & Video by Lyn Burks
In my experience, if you would like to see how serious a helicopter operator is about safety, then look no further than its new hire or recurrent pilot training programs. On one hand, there are programs which barely meet the FAA minimums, with their training program loosely packaged between the covers of Part 135 Operations Specifications. On the other, there are operators who go beyond the OpSpecs and fill the training “tool box” with innovative techniques and dedicated people.
Generally speaking, the training programs provided by the big helicopter operators in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM), are some of the best the civilian world has to offer. In this continuing series on working in the GOM I take a look at the people, the tools, and the training program that Bristow Group utilizes when training pilots to fly in support of the offshore oil industry.
“Is it ignorance or apathy? Hey, I don't know and I don't care.” – Jimmy Buffet
Imagine a helicopter operator who flies a fleet of single pilot turbine helicopters, loaded to the hilt, landing on small obstacle laden steel structures so far out in the ocean that one can no longer see land. Further to those minor issues, add in a smidge of unpredictable weather, a sprinkle of sketchy weather reporting as well as little to no air traffic control. Sound like fun yet? Oh, I am just warming up.
You would think that all one would need to do is hire experienced pilots to fill the pilot’s seat of those helicopters, right? Well keep your imagination cap on for a minute. What if that same helicopter operator decided to hire fairly low time pilots, who have never so much as sat in the pilot seat of a turbine helicopter, let alone actually have flown one? Nor has the pilot been further from a shoreline in a helicopter over water than the 1500 feet it would take to glide his R22 to the shoreline should the engine quit under perfect circumstances.
It would almost seem illogical that such an inexperienced pilot would be hired and placed in such extraordinary circumstances. No turbine time? OK, I could go for that. No offshore time? Most could swallow that one as well. But not having either sounds like trouble right? Wrong! It happens all the time and in fact it has become the standard in the offshore market.
“Education is the best provision for the journey to old age.” - Aristotle
The helicopter offshore flying environment under the right circumstances can be a brutal, unforgiving place. The fact that operators in this sector can hire young (in their flying careers) and somewhat inexperienced pilots and still maintain a comparatively excellent safety record is a true testament to their training programs.
In the last decade the offshore helicopter operators have made light year jumps in their use of new technologies in both training and everyday business and Bristow Group in the GOM is no exception. They utilize new training facilities, state of the art simulation trainers, and many creative training aids to help “train’em up and send’em out” into the real world. Naturally with over 240 pilots needing initial and bi-annual training in 9 different helicopter models, the 12 Instructor Training Department run by Director of Training Kent Dekerlegand can use all the tools he can get.
Since many turbine helicopters have more complex systems than their piston counterparts, Bristow gives extra attention to systems training to new hires who lack turbine experience. Traditionally systems training would be accomplished using manuals and the actual aircraft. Maintenance Training Manager Doug Shaw has taken classroom systems training to a new level by turning actual aircraft components into full scale classroom training models. A student can preflight an entire rotor head, or look through custom built sight windows and learn the inner workings of a main rotor gearbox from the comfort of the classroom. This type of in-house innovation is what makes the Bristow training product world class.
The first two weeks of initial training culminate in two very important benchmarks prior to moving on to the next phase of training. First, the trainee must pass an FAA Part 135 Checkride. Second, pilots must complete a full on company mission based offshore solo flight. Bristow Chief Pilot Bob Old says, “The boost in confidence gained by the new hire pilot following the offshore solo cross country is indispensable. This is particularly evident in those civilian trained new hires who have never worked in a 135 operation but it’s just as true for those recent ‘out of the military’ pilots who very rarely, if ever, have flown solo. To a new hire pilot, this puts all the training into perspective.”
Once the two weeks of initial training are complete, new pilots will then enter a 3 – 7 day additional training period called the Initial Operational Experience Training (IOE). It’s during this time that new hires get to strap on the helicopter and get out into the world of real customers, open water and oil rigs. This period of IOE flight training is done under the watchful eye of a company Training Captain on board the aircraft. When training ends, evaluation is far from over though. During the first year a new hire can expect to return to the training division for 3, 6, and 12 month evaluations and recurrent training.
There is no doubt that helicopter simulation is widely regarded as one of the best aviation training tools available today. Bristow incorporates simulation training into every level of training regardless of the helicopter flown or seniority of the pilot. For pilots flying either the Bell 206 or the Bell 407 they have two Frasca Simulators in house. For pilots flying larger helicopters such as the Eurocopter EC135 or the Sikorsky S76/S92, the training is contracted out to FlightSafety International (FSI).
Authors Note: Being an S76 pilot myself, I have had plenty of experience flying the same model simulator at FSI. If you would like to read an article and watch a video on my recent training experience at FSI please visit:
Personally, although I have a couple thousand hours in the B206, I have never had the opportunity to fly the Frasca B206 simulator. I had my chance while at Bristow and was put through the paces by Bristow Instructor Pilot and Check Airman Brett Ingram. Although it was not a motion simulator, it realistically trains pilots for normal/emergency procedures and makes for an outstanding scenario based training aid.
I was asked to perform one emergency procedure in particular designed just for company pilots. You will not however find this procedure in any Pilots Operating Handbook. The procedure was called the VHRP Procedure (pronounced vee-hirp) also known as the Vertical Helicopter Instrument Recovery Procedure. This is a “last resort” procedure for a pilot who might find himself inadvertent IMC or VFR on top and a fuel situation that would not allow the pilot to make it back to an airport with an instrument approach procedure or an immediate area of VMC.
The premise of the procedure is to follow the usual IIMC procedures, which are to transition to instruments, fly the helicopter, stabilize the helicopter, climb to a safe altitude, then communicate. Assuming the pilot cannot find a location that would allow a VMC descent to a safer altitude above the water or ground, they will attempt an IMC descent to a safe altitude above the water or ground. The procedure is quite simple in that the pilot needs to identify an area clear of known obstructions and then perform a wings level constant airspeed/constant rate descent until they break out and can see the surface. The pilot would then fly low and over the surface to the nearest safe landing area (rig or land) or set down in the water prior to running out of fuel.
The main idea: Would you rather put the helicopter down in the water in a power on controlled descent or auto rotate IMC when the engine quits? I think the former would be the choice for most. Although my “hand flying – B206 – instrument” skills were a bit rusty, I managed to follow the procedure and break out at 100’ agl without incident. In this pilot’s opinion, this single training procedure would make the simulator worth its weight in gold!
Another Critical Training Partner
As stated earlier, the offshore environment can be very unforgiving, especially if you find yourself, along with your passengers and helicopter, in the water. There have been many accidents over the decades in the GOM in which pilots and passengers have drowned. It was determined that with proper training, a water crash victim could increase his or her chance of survival by 90%. We are not just talking about classroom and book training though. I am referring to the “in the cockpit, strapped in, upside down and underwater” type training. This is the type of training that makes very large Cajun roughnecks, who are typically afraid of nothing, shake in their boots.
Modern day Helicopter Underwater Egress Training, also known as HUET, became somewhat main stream in the 1990’s. Most GOM operators would require this training as a part of their new hire training program. In 2007 Bristow made HUET training mandatory for all new employees who would fly offshore. Additionally, those same employees are required to do recurrency training every 36 months.
Bristow has found a training partner in Safety Management Systems based in its headquarters home town of Lafayette, LA. With a large indoor pool facility, and a team of crack instructors they teach thousands of personnel per year how to get out of a sinking helicopter alive. Although I have been through this training in the past, my experience this time around was no less daunting than my first time around back in 1997.
To see underwater footage of myself and other personnel escaping the HUET device, watch the supplemental video to this article on Justhelicopters.TV.
In decades past, helicopter operators in the GOM, as well as the pilots in their employ had the reputation of being “cowboys” from an operational standpoint. This was due in part by a culture that was developed which lived (and sometimes died) by the mantra of “customer first” as opposed to “safety first”. The pilots themselves, both young and old, told me personally that in recent years there have been major initiatives to reverse this mindset. Naturally the customer’s requirements are very high on the priority list, but no longer are those requirements trumping safety when it comes to flying and the decision making process. This is further evidenced within the Bristow organization when you see how much effort and resources are directed at their world class training facility and Target Zero safety initiative.
WATCH THE VIDEO – on Justhelicopters.TV.
STAY TUNED FOR MORE – Every month we will be adding to this series with continuing articles, pictures and video.
MORE TO COME - Base Living, The Aircraft, Maintenance, Flight Following, Flying in the GOM