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Offshore Flying in the Gulf of Mexico

Posted 11 years 338 days ago ago by Admin

Offshore Flying in the Gulf of Mexico by Stan Grossman

What We Do
Helicopters have been serving the oil industry for over fifty years. From humble beginnings they've become an indispensible component in the support of offshore oil and gas production. At last count the Gulf of Mexico oil field employed some 600 helicopters. The great majority of offshore flying involves transporting personnel and cargo to and from the specialized vessels, drilling rigs, production platforms, and pipeline terminals where the work of producing oil and natural gas is done. We're also often tasked to patrol pipelines for signs of leaks or damage. There's an occasional requirement to sling a load, but very infrequently and almost never with a long line.

We fly mostly day VFR, though we do have a significant IFR capability. We range as far as 200 or more miles offshore, as deep water exploration, drilling, and production becomes increasingly practical. There's usually no firm schedule, everything is pretty much "on demand."

We operate from bases located along the Gulf Coast from South Texas to Mobile, Alabama. A few bases are located in or near cities, but for the most part we work out of some pretty austere facilities located, quite literally, at the end of the road. Helicopters are also used extensively in supporting the oil industry in the North Sea, the Persian Gulf, and off the coast of Africa.

Who We Are
In a lot of ways offshore flying is the foundation of commercial helicopter operations in the U.S. A host of guys came here after Viet Nam, as it was just about the only place with much of a demand for helicopter pilots at the time. While a few actually enjoyed the adventure, after a few years many were pretty much locked into the shabby lifestyle and meager pay by their family responsibilities and the lack of other practical options. Either that or they became victims of their own optimism, hoping pay and working conditions would improve as helicopter flying in the oil field "took off." It was to be a long wait.

As the helicopter industry matured and the demand in other sectors increased, offshore flying became a stepping stone to a "real" job for the more ambitious aviators. However, with the recent significant pay increases and the steady improvements in safety and working conditions, many young pilots are finding it an attractive choice for the long haul. We'll always have a fairly large turnover, but it's slowed noticeably.

The pilots who fly in the Gulf these days are still predominantly ex-military - mostly Army with some Navy, Coasties, a couple of Air Force, and a few of us former Marines thrown in to keep the rest in line. However, the landscape continues to evolve, as an increasing proportion have civilian-only backgrounds. I've found these pilots to be well prepared for this kind of work and very competitive with the military trained guys - civilian training is absolutely no disadvantage. In my opinion they're more likely to adapt quickly to the finesse required by our type of flying than someone who's used to stabilization and a lot of surplus power. They may also be a little more in tune with the concept of operating at a profit.

While a few oil companies operate their own helicopter fleet, the majority of the flying is contracted. That is, most of the aircraft and crews are provided by third-party operators and dedicated to support specific customers. The aircraft spend the night at the operator's base being maintained, but during the day the ship essentially belongs to the customer. You just go wherever the customer's dispatcher sends you.

The three largest operators in the Gulf of Mexico are PHI, Air Logistics, and ERA. Evergreen, Houston Helicopters, Rotorcraft Technologies, and Tex-Air are also major players. Exxon owns their fleet, but it's operated and maintained by a division of PHI called IHTI. Chevron and Taylor Energy each own and operate their own helicopters.

The Gulf of Mexico fleet is almost exclusively turbine-powered. It includes a number of different types of small ship, generally flown single pilot; Bell 206s and 407s, A-Stars, Twin-Stars, EC-120s, and Bolkows (BO-105). One operator I'm aware of uses an EC-135 and a couple of EC-130s. The medium ships are generally flown dual pilot and include Bell 212s, 412s, and Sikorsky S-76s. Heavy ships require a type-rating and (I presume) are always flown dual pilot. They include Bell 214STs, Pumas, and S-61s. My company has ordered some S-92s and others may soon follow. The AB-139 will probably find a niche here eventually as well.

Most small ships are minimally equipped and suitable for VFR-only operation; however, the medium and heavy ships are generally IFR capable. Most, if not all IFR ships, have weather radar, and many have autopilots. Unfortunately, very few Gulf of Mexico aircraft have air conditioning. Flight duties in two-pilot aircraft are shared equally at some companies, while at others copilots play a secondary role. They get their initial experience in the Gulf flying left seat in medium ships before moving up to small ship captain.

Maintenance is generally good to excellent. You'll have your ship during the day, then turn it over to the mechanics so they can work on it overnight. The more successful operators have learned over the years not to cut corners here. They keep a sufficient inventory of parts available and have the facilities and expertise to do the job right. Major inspections or repairs are usually done at the company's main hangar, but field maintenance is often capable of doing some pretty involved work overnight. They're the unsung heroes of this business.

To be considered for employment with most U.S. offshore operators you must hold at least an FAA Commercial Rotorcraft-Helicopter certificate with an Instrument rating in Helicopters and a Class 2 medical certificate. Most operators require a minimum of 1000-1500 flight hours as PIC in helicopters.

Turbine time is not always an absolute requirement, but obviously helps, as does any additional flight time or qualification. A few of our oil company customers require that pilots who fly their contracts have an ATP certificate. It's not a hiring requirement for any of the employers that I know of, but it does make a pilot more versatile, and consequently, valuable if he's not limited as to whom he may fly for. As an incentive, my company pays a nominal bonus to those who have their rating. My company also offers test preparation classes and will provide an aircraft and instructor/examiner at no charge for you to practice and take the practical test.

Life as a New Hire
The alarm jars you from a fitful sleep at 0500. You momentarily panic. "Where am I? Oh, yeah, Morgan friggin' City." Stagger to the bathroom, one eye still welded shut. Finish the morning ritual. Let's see - four clean uniforms left. That means it's Monday. Get dressed, drive to the heliport, park at the far end by the mosquito breeding pond, sign in, look at the lineup - Spare again, sigh! Preflight, find a spot on the couch, watch Fox news for two hours. First launch is back - wonder if they brought in any extra breakfast. Man, I wish they'd come up with a flight for me. "Don't be in too big a hurry," you're told for the umpteenth time, "you'll get your fill of flying soon enough." Lunch time, man I'm getting really hungry. Sign out to the apartment. Watch TV all afternoon - 52 channels and nothing on! Return to the heliport, rinse, tie down. Not so fast! Special out to Vermilion three million. Waiting on parts to show up - should be here any minute - what's the latest you can leave? Land 10 minutes before down time, rinse and tie down again. Sign out for the day, back to the apartment, still nothing on TV. Frozen pizza. Damn, have I really gained fifteen pounds since I started working here?

In the Gulf of Mexico most newly hired pilots start out as VFR captains in small ships (most commonly the Bell 206), but transitions may happen fairly quickly depending on the particular company. The majority of our flying is done under part 135, limiting us to 14 hours of duty and eight flight hours a day. The work day usually starts before sunrise and most companies require that you be back at your base half an hour before sunset. As a new pilot at one of the larger companies you'll probably be assigned initially to the "pool." That is, you'll have no permanent base or customer assignment. You'll be subject to being sent from base to base to fill vacancies in the schedule (vacation or sick leave).

Most offshore helicopter companies work a "one for one" schedule - one day off for every day worked. Many work seven days on / seven days off, though there are variations such as 14 and 14 and 28 and 28. Thus, they're like two separate companies. We refer to the week we're on duty as being "on hitch" and the week off as our "break." Some companies work weekdays only with weekends off, what we call 5 and 2. It generally pays more, but you'll probably have to live locally.

Our customers can be "rough around the edges." To most of them you're a bus driver. Not many care about the thrill of flying, the fantastic vistas, the awesome power of nature as seen from 1000', the sense of freedom, the satisfaction of a perfect landing, etc., etc., etc. All they really seem to care about is how long they're going to have to endure this ride. You'll do your best to accommodate them and provide safe, efficient transportation and they'll reward you by leaving the cabin trashed with life jackets tangled in knots, hearing protection and newspapers strewn about, and the occasional prize - a half full spit cup wedged between the seats. Either that or they'll leave a door open with a seatbelt dangling out, then disappear downstairs while you try to figure out how to get it closed without having to shut down. After awhile you'll just take it in stride, but it can be disappointing when your best effort doesn't even seem to merit a thank you. I think as a result of this and the austere living conditions, very few women have made a career of offshore flying. A number have passed through, but only a handful have stayed. I have tremendous respect for those who do.

Some customers are not very understanding of the limitations we face as pilots, but any base manager worth his salt will back you up when the customer insists that you to do something outside the rules. A lot also depends on your attitude. If you've established a track record with your customer and base manager of being conscientious and willing to make the effort to do your job right you won't usually be questioned when you have to say "no." Of course, as a new guy you haven't had much of a chance to establish a track record, now have you? Be prepared to be second-guessed until they get to know you.

Most operators provide housing while you're on hitch. The rooms are generally in house trailers, often located right on the base, though some companies have apartments or other accommodations. Food is usually your responsibility, and for a guy in the pool, what with having to travel light, it can be a challenge. There's not always a convenient place to get a quick meal, and grocery store prices are often outrageous. Food that doesn't require refrigeration is a real plus. Forewarned is forearmed.

Only a few bases are located near sufficient civilization to be attractive as a domicile. If you find yourself at one of the more remote bases there's generally not a lot to do in the evenings after work. Most guys have dinner, call the wife, watch a little TV, and go to bed early.

One of the great benefits of the seven and seven schedule is that it allows you to live a long distance from where you work. However, if you're more than about a six-hour drive away it'll probably become awfully inconvenient, if not downright unworkable after awhile. Commercial air is fairly expensive and jump seating is pretty much a thing of the past for most of us, though at least one company does have reciprocal agreements. You'll soon begin to resent giving up two days of your break (one day coming and one going) in order to travel. Some companies still have a policy requiring new employees to live within a specified distance of the headquarters, but regardless, not many can handle a long commute indefinitely. There have been some notable exceptions, but for the most part it starts to get to a guy after a couple of months and he'll probably be gone within a year if he hasn't "bitten the bullet" and moved to the region.

The Gulf Coast environment can be hard on a car (rough roads, dust, constant exposure to the sun), so you probably won't want to bring the new Mercedes. On the other hand, your company will probably not be very sympathetic when you can't make it to work due to car trouble. If you're sick that's one thing, but car trouble is pretty much frowned upon as an excuse.

Going Offshore
There used to be numerous jobs which required the aircraft to remain offshore overnight for pretty much the entire hitch. Depending on the company and the contract a mechanic might be assigned offshore as well. There are still a few of those jobs left, but they're not so prevalent anymore. Still, you may be required to RON offshore on occasion. Nowadays most offshore facilities are reasonably comfortable, but it wasn't always that way. Some of the living conditions used to be rather disagreeable - cramped dirty quarters, nowhere to go to get away from the cigarette smoke, poor food, noise, etc. Offshore jobs were generally considered undesirable, but a few guys actually preferred them for the solitude and the extra pay.

We fly over water beyond sight of land much of the time. It says so right there in the job description. We're pretty well prepared equipment-wise (floats, rafts, life vests, ELTs, etc.) and procedure-wise (operating minimums, flight following, overdue aircraft reporting) to operate there, but you must never lose your respect for it. No doubt about it, it's a hostile environment and some have found this disconcerting. Most, however, adapt pretty quickly. I came from a military multi-pilot background where I'd already done some "blue water" flying. My greatest adjustment, by far, was learning to organize the cockpit for single-pilot operation. Since this environment will be new to you, you'll find it quite challenging at first. After a while, though, the work will become fairly routine and eventually, complacency will set in. That's where you'll really need to discipline yourself not to cut corners.

The company FM lights up, "BP 21, I need you to go to 47AA first, pick up three and take 'em to Q, then crew change Ensco 81 (four trips), pick up four at 95 for Fourchon, then go to 43 and put out the field, got it?" Why do I even bother writing this stuff down. It's gonna to change before I get to my first destination. Well, we're off to a good start. Should have 25-30 landings by 9:00 o'clock if this is any indication.

Flight following is the responsibility of each operator. Most of the larger outfits have a dedicated communication center and a network of remote transmitters throughout the Gulf.

"Fourchon, BP21 off Fourchon, Grand Isle 47 at, uh, put me there at uh 45, solo, 1 plus, uh, 35," you manage to get out without too much stumbling this time. Hey, I'm starting to get the hang of this. Almost constant "Traffic, Traffic" from the TCAS in your headset as you beach out. Damn, I don't see but one of them, OK got that guy, these two are no factor, alright that's better. OAT says 29°C already. Gotta love this flying greenhouse.

Many of the helidecks offshore appear to have been an afterthought, seemingly located so as to cause the greatest possible difficulty for takeoff and landing. When you're light it's usually no problem, but heavy is a different matter. When environmental contitions conspire with max gross weight it can be a real challenge to get on and off some decks.

Alright, there's AA. Looks like the deck's clear, wind's southeast. OK, got a flare boom on the left and a crane to the right. Kick the tail a little left after landing to clear the stairwell. Green deck. Floats armed, Before Landing's complete. Holy crap, where'd that antenna come from. Alright, cleared it, no sweat. Gotta talk to those guys about puttin' stuff up above deck level. After Landing. "Fourchon, BP 21 landed Grand Isle 47, start a local with 1 plus 20." Ah, man the friggin' crane's moving. He wasn't moving while I was landing was he? I don't remember seeing him outside the cab, though.

Customers are always diligent about providing accurate personnel and cargo weights. They know how important it is to flight safety - yeah, right!

There's no way that box weighs only 75#. It took two of them struggling to get it in the baggage compartment. Alright let's have one in the front and the other two in the mid seats - no, don't sit in the back. I need you to balance that weight in the baggage compartment. Manifest says we're 150# under gross - should be OK. These guys wouldn't lie to me, right? And what's with the hats? Do they wear them every waking moment? Man, I hate having to tell them to take 'em off every time. Alright, Before Takeoff. Crane's stopped. 85% torque to hover, CG feels OK. And up and nose over. Whoa, don't settle, don't settle, more power. OK, easy, now. Wow, it shouldn't have taken 98% to clear that deck. Oh, yeah, it's a slab sided platform. Wonder if the pax saw the veins popping out on my forehead.

Fuel is a major consideration. The larger companies each maintain a network of offshore fuel facilities located on customers' production platforms and drilling rigs. Some smaller operators have agreements which allow them to use another company's fuel.

The FM lights up again, "BP 21, you got enough fuel to swing by 826 and bring two in to Fourchon?" Ah, let's see - 25 minutes there, then 40 minutes in, plus five minutes at idle on the deck ... "Yeah, I can do it." But just barely, you mutter to yourself. Oh, man, I hate seeing that low fuel light. I'm gonna be worrying all the way out and all the way back. "Hey, Marcel, I changed my mind. I'm gonna take on a little gas at 47. Can someone come up and pump it for me?"

Weather in the Gulf may be relatively benign compared to the North Sea, but you'll soon learn a whole new respect for it, as it can still cause havoc on occasion. Summer days vary from 3500'-4000' density altitude at sea level without a breath of wind to a full blown hurricane. In the winter, cold fronts are generally fast-moving with dramatic wind shifts and temperature changes. The generally high humidity of the region is conducive to fog and, of course, thunderstorms - lots of thunderstorms. Winds offshore are often significantly stronger than onshore. We've learned the hard way that offshore winds are capable of blowing a helicopter off the deck and over the side. There are a few reporting stations offshore, but most of the weather reporting and forecasting comes from onshore stations. It can be a bit of an art to determine whether it's a good idea to fly or not.

Whoa, that looks dark over there. Let's see, it should be moving northeast, it'll probably miss us. Hmm, I don't know, seems to be getting darker the closer we get. On and off in five minutes. We can beat it. "826 this is BP 21, is that storm on top of you yet?" "Roge-O Cap'n just started raining." Great, alright, five minutes out, the heavy stuff shouldn't hit for a few more minutes. In and out, no playing around. "Ah, 826, this is BP 21. I'll be there in five, have everybody ready to jump on quick. Can't spend much time on deck." Oh, man, this rain's getting heavier. Platform in sight, Before Landing, floats armed. Shoulda used that plastic polish on the windshield, can't see worth a crap. OK, After Landing. "Ewing Bank, BP 21 landed Ewing Bank 826." Ah, nuts, they'll never get all that stuff in and secured. I'm gonna have to shut down. This is turning into a real goat rope. "And 826, we're gonna have to shut down to load this stuff. Let's do it after the rain stops." Shut down, tie down, slosh your way inside the frigid living quarters soaked to the skin. Hey Cap'n, you want a cold drink? Just three more days to break night.

Pay and Benefits
Offshore helicopter operators continue to set the "industry standard" for compensation and benefits - that is, they're approximately the median for the helicopter industry. The larger companies start new pilots in the upper $30k to mid-$40k range. Top salary for most small ship pilots is around the mid-60s. Medium ship captains generally top out in the mid 70s to low 80s. Some operators pay per diem. Most pay a bonus for overtime (known as "workover"), holidays, and RON offshore. Benefits depend somewhat on whether your company is a division of a larger company or a stand-alone entity. Several companies have 401(k)s. One or two even have honest-to-goodness retirement plans. Medical and dental plans are usually pretty comprehensive and competitively priced. The jury's still out on the value of Loss of License and Long Term Disability insurance.

Some companies require new hires to sign a "training contract." That is, if you elect to leave the company before completing a specified term, you're obligated to pay back a portion of your training cost. I can kind of see this one both ways. There have been cases where an unscrupulous operator would actually tell a prospective employee to come to the Gulf for the training, then quit and come to work for them. On the other hand, a guy might come here with every intention of staying, but for one reason or another it doesn't work out. In any case, I don't know that a training contract has ever been successfully enforced, so as long as your motives are honest this shouldn't really be much of an issue.

The pilots at Air Logistics and PHI are represented by unions. Both are currently in the process of negotiating their second contract. Membership in the union is a hiring requirement at Air Log, while PHI requires that all pilots hired henceforth either join the union or pay an "agency fee" (which amounts to paying union dues without actually becoming a union member). Despite our differences, the relationship between pilots and management at my company are still cordial and professional, and as far as day to day operation the union is virtually transparent. To everyone's credit, it has had little or no discernable effect on our customers.

This work can be hot, dirty, lonely, fatiguing, and demoralizing at times, especially when you get caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place (i.e. what the customer wants you to do and what the regs and operating limitations allow). It can can also be pretty enjoyable and rewarding if you work at it and find your niche. In choosing an employer I'd advise that you look beyond the pay, benefits and other perks to find a company where your managers will support you operationally and where the maintenance is done to high standards. Talk to current employees and make sure you won't be pressured to violate the ops manual, aircraft limitations, or your own comfort level in order to get the job done. I guarantee it will make all the difference in the world.