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North Sea Safety

Celebrating one year of collaboration


In early April 2015, helicopter operators flying offshore in the UK sector of the North Sea began designating passenger seating for the first time, including specific seats for extra-broad passengers. These improvements, largely achieved thanks to industry partnerships, are just a few among many to have been implemented in response to the Civil Aviation Authority’s (CAA) CAP1145 report, aimed at improving safety in the region’s offshore oil and gas operations.

By Heather Couthaud

Since the report’s publication in February 2014, the North Sea has seen a surge in collaborative efforts, with a leading role played by cross-industry groups such as Step Change in Safety, HeliOffshore (formerly the Joint Operators Review) and the Airbus Helicopters Safety Partnership.

Teaming together the voices of helicopter operators, oil and gas companies and contractors, trade unions, regulators and the onshore and offshore workforce, member-led Step Change in Safety has provided a forum for exchange, information and action.

“All of our members perform roughly the same mission, in the same place,” said Les Linklater, Executive Director for Step Change. “You might fly to a different installation, but you fly from an onshore facility to an offshore facility, you pick people up, and you drop someone home. So when it comes to safety, collaboration drives a more consistent performance.”

When the CAA proposed an action requiring all passengers on offshore flights to wear a Category A emergency breathing system (EBS), Step Change mobilized the industry to conduct dry-training courses for oil and gas workers in time for the earliest flights with the apparatus in August and September. “We’ve trained some 82,000 people on it,” said Linklater. “It’s a phenomenal success in terms of what we’ve been able to deliver.”

To date, collaborative improvements to North Sea helicopter safety have mainly focused on survivability after an accident and include imposing restrictions on flights over extreme sea conditions, requiring passengers to be seated near exit windows appropriate for their body size, and adoption of Category A compliant EBS, among others.

Regarding the body-size restriction, intended to ensure passengers be able to swim free of an aircraft through an emergency exit window, Step Change – with input from the industry – was instrumental in fixing a standard size measurement for passengers. Determining what that measurement should be, said Linklater, “was immensely complicated. We had the benefit of reviewing some of these points with Airbus Helicopters. For example, we used the H225 mock-up to test window sizes. That collaboration has proven invaluable.”

Under the aegis of its Safety Partnership – and aided by collaboration with its partners – Airbus Helicopters is seeking to evolve the whole of its company-wide safety initiatives with a greater focus on preventing an accident.

Recent examples include the first-of-its-kind flight crew operations manual (FCOM) for the H225, and training standardization, which aims to reach consensus with operators on content and materials used in pilot training and how to apply them.

“Collaboration is crucial,” said Andrew Dettl, Customer Support Director of the Airbus Helicopters North Sea Fleet Centre in Aberdeen, Scotland. “Meetings with operators have been a key part of our initiative to standardize training programs for pilots.”

Traditionally Airbus Helicopters had placed a strong emphasis on the technical aspects of continuing airworthiness, focusing on improving its products (aircraft and documentation) to eliminate potential weaknesses in design. Considering the important role of operations in preventing accidents, the company decided to adjust its focus and better cooperate with those who actually operate and maintain the aircraft – hence the term Safety Partnership. “No-one can do it alone,” said Dettl. “We need the operators and the operators need us to work together to reduce the risk of accidents.”

Maintaining an H225 simulator locally for type rating and recurrent training is only one of the advantages Airbus Helicopters’ fleet center provides. Thanks to its early investment in meeting customer needs, Airbus Helicopters has the largest presence in the region among OEMs, with technical representatives on site 24/7.

The site also operates its own warehouse of spare stock, with a reputation for delivery of parts urgently required to return an aircraft to flight in under an hour. According to Dettl, more than 60 percent of parts supported under Parts-by-the-Hour contracts for the Super Puma family are held on-site. And an on-site presence has allowed a maintenance mentor – a recent addition to the company’s best practices portfolio – to offer his expertise throughout the region, again aimed at sharing best practice and preventing accidents.

When Airbus Helicopters became the first OEM member of Step Change, Linklater said it was “a demonstrable commitment to safety.” He added, “We’ve been able to bring senior industry workers into the Airbus Helicopters environment. That engagement with Airbus Helicopters’ support has increased confidence among the workforce as a whole.”

And with industry-wide collaboration hitting its stride, the impact on safety may well reach higher bounds this year too as the focus shifts from survivability to preventing accidents.

Learn more about Step Change in Safety