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Helicopter Operations in the Gulf of Mexico

Flying choppers can be pretty challenging. Operating offshore on oil rigs and platforms hundreds of miles offshore in the sometimes unbridled wind conditions and swaying platforms is just another day in the office for those who dare. Here’s a peek into the operation that seldom gets reported, a testimony of the somewhat mastery of man over machines and the elements.




Flying choppers can be pretty challenging. Operating offshore on oil rigs and platforms hundreds of miles offshore in the sometimes unbridled wind conditions and swaying platforms is just another day in the office for those who dare. Here’s a peek into the operation that seldom gets reported, a testimony of the somewhat mastery of man over machines and the elements.
The Gulf of Mexico is the playing field of Capt. Derek Poole, a commercial helicopter pilot with over 4000 flying hours, who explains how flying in the Gulf is very different from operations over land. Derek averages 4 to 5 platform landings a day, but has recorded as much as 16 landings within a 10-hour span.
SAFETY
Firstly, the helicopters have to be fitted with floats for over water operations. Pilots must complete a water survival training course and wear life vests at all times while flying. Secondly, the approaches are slightly steeper than normal because of the many obstacles on the platforms/rigs.
COMMUNICATION, NAVIGATION & SURVEILLANCE
When flying in the Gulf of Mexico, there is no air traffic control service provided, however Flight Following is available, and pilots are in constant contact with their own Base Operations. Voice communication is made possible through a network of repeater stations scattered throughout the Gulf which is divided into multiple sectors, each with it’s own designated frequency which must be monitored while transiting.
Sky Connect is a satellite based system used for surveillance by operators to show each aircraft’s position, altitude, fuel, ETA,  etc. Flights are conducted under both IFR and VFR rules, however, flight in IMC is restricted to multi-engine helicopters. Flight plans are opened and closed strictly with Base Operations, who are responsible for coordinating with the Flight Following provider.
Navigation in the Gulf is accomplished exclusively through the use of GPS, and all platforms are displayed on a special Gulf Of Mexico World Aeronautical Chart for reference.
FLIGHT OPERATIONS
Depending on the operations and job rotation, helicopters may be based offshore on the larger more sturdy platforms which hardly move with the waves or ocean current. The one-legged platforms however sway quite a bit, but relatively little time is spent on them, maybe 1 or 2 hours.
Landing at the many platforms, some of which are unmanned, requires a lot of judgement from the pilot to estimate the wind direction and speed, determine direction from which to approach and then navigate around numerous protruding obstacles.
The typical operational altitudes in the Gulf are as follows:

  • Field operations (within the vicinity of the platforms): 500 feet or below.
  • Enroute operations:
    • Eastbound – 750′, 1750′ and 2750′
    • Westbound – 1250′ and 2250′

THE PLATFORMS
Each platform displays numbers to indicated the max allowable weigh in thousands of pounds that can safely land on the deck, as well as the dimensions in feet of the landing area. There are nearly 4000 oil and gas platforms off the US gulf coast, some standing in water as much as 8000 feet deep.



(Photos courtesy of Capt. Derek Poole)


9 Responses

09.07.09

I enjoyed reading the article. On point!!

09.07.09

Very informative piece and factual too. I appreciate it.

09.07.09

Thanks Wayne…something for our country officals to take note on how to utilise the available technology that can benefit the interior locations

09.07.09

Flying offshore here in Brazil is the same as in the Gulf except that we have a very congested traffic situation. We move about 40,000 personel per month between platforms and land. I fly in the Campos Basin where there are about 8 different companies flying over 30 choppers in this area all day.
Because of the intensity of traffic in the Campos Basin, and since flying over the sea at low altitudes make contact with the regular ATC difficult, we have a TMA sector totally dedicated to our flights so it is easy to communicate with the controllers responsible for that area. The problem with the number of aircraft flying in the same area is that crossing routes are constant. All the pilots are aware of the danger and thus maintain bilateral contact with the controller, base operations and other aircraft when possible. Sometimes we are caught by surprise crossing in front of other aircraft especially when controllers are changing shifts. Most of the choppers, however, are equipped with TCAS.
Other Basins fall within controlled zones around airports, so traffic within these are monitored by the respective towers. There are no TMAs or control areas dedicated to our flights outside the Campos Basin.
This is just an idea of what offshore flying is like here in Brazil.

09.07.09

Thanks Dereck Wayne for an insight into the Campos Basin operation.
Because of the heavy traffic in the Campos Basin, Brazil is implementing ADS-B for surveillance. This is scheduled for completion in December 2010. In addition, as of May 2009 IFR flights without GNSS equipment are not authorized in in the Macaé TMA which is adjacent to the Campos Basin.

09.07.09

Wayne you have that right, I operate out of Macaé, and there have been some problems operating inside of Macaé’s TMA. When heading to shore we are transfered to Macaé control and fly normal traffic patterns. Then sometimes you recieve instructions to return or go to another platform,you had already been transfered to Macaé control, you then have to ask Macaé control to transfer you back to the other TMA, and they in turn have to hook you up again, this can be very frustrating, especially at the end of the day when you are tired. There are many things on documents that are not implemented in real life. We are awaiting a lot of changes. The problem is convincing the owners of the choppers to put up to date navigation instruments on all the aircraft, which they say is expensive.

09.07.09

Thanks for the post Wayne, I am a military helicopter pilot that has mostly flown overwater, (guess what service) I am trying to learn as much as possible about offshore aviation support so I can fill in the gaps in my experience when I leave the armed forces.

09.07.09

The NAVY …. I guess!

09.07.09

Quite interesting.

About Wayne Farley

I am Wayne, a career air traffic controller with over 30 years of industry experience. Engage me while I share my thoughts, experience, and news from around the aviation world. A post titled “13 Characteristics of an Air Traffic Controller” written in 2010 went viral and established me as the unofficial ambassador of ATC.

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