Offshore Helicopter Operations - The Air Bridge of the Seven Seas

How do you safely and efficiently move tons of supplies and personnel to pinpoint spots in the ocean or rescue people off a distress cruise ship in harsh maritime weather? The answer is by helicopter. Helicopter "Offshore" service providers are the bridge between safe, dry land and the challenges of the sea. Patrick Ryan highlights the unique aspects of this serious Aerial Work aviation service to give you a better perspective of the importance of this flight service.

Patrick Ryan  |  26th October 2023
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Patrick Ryan
Patrick Ryan

Patrick Ryan brings over 30 years of experience as a Senior Consultant helping government and business...

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Helicopter flying over offshore platform


The term "offshore operations" refers to places where not only a portion of the flight operations take place offshore but when most of the flight, including the main objectives, is to be completed away from dry land. Driven by industry demand, specific types of helicopters in offshore operations have significantly increased in recent years. Because of their VTOL and hover capabilities, helicopters often support specific and critical maritime industries' needs. 

So, how have helicopters become a critical tool for the maritime industry? What are they doing today, and what will they do in the future? Answering these questions will give you a better picture of the offshore helicopter world.

Today's Offshore Helicopter Operations 

Today, helicopter offshore service providers provide a wide range of services that support a broad spectrum of industries. Industries like energy, sealift, public safety, and civil defense heavily rely on helicopters to establish and sustain their operations far from land. Here are some critical offshore helicopter operations you'll see today: 

Transportation of Personnel - One of the most common uses of helicopters in offshore operations is the transportation of personnel to and from offshore platforms, drilling rigs, and other sea vessels. This is especially important in the oil and gas industry, where workers must travel to remote offshore facilities. 

Cargo Transport – Besides transporting personnel, helicopters are also used to transport equipment, supplies, and cargo to offshore sites of ships. They can carry various types of cargo, including spare parts, tools, and essential materials required for offshore activities. 

Search and Rescue (SAR) - Helicopters are crucial for search and rescue operations in the offshore environment. They can quickly respond to emergencies, such as medical evacuations or accidents, on offshore platforms or ships and provide timely assistance. 

Aerial Surveying & Mapping - Helicopters are used for conducting aerial surveys of offshore areas, including environmental assessments, wildlife monitoring, and geological surveys. These surveys help in planning and managing offshore projects while minimizing environmental impact. 

Offshore Wind Farm Operations - In the renewable energy sector, helicopters are employed to maintain and inspect offshore wind turbines. Technicians use helicopters to access and service these turbines in the middle of the ocean. 

Offshore Medevac – Besides SAR operations, helicopters are often the fastest transport to medical facilities onshore when someone becomes ill or injured while offshore. Offshore medevac operations are vital for the safety and well-being of offshore workers – commercial fishing ships, oil rigs, container ships, etc. 

Offshore Firefighting - In the event of a fire on an offshore platform or vessel, helicopters can be equipped with firefighting equipment to assist in containing and extinguishing the blaze. As you can see, offshore helicopter operations encompass various activities involving helicopters in the offshore environment, serving industries like oil and gas, renewable energy, search and rescue, and more.

The Evolution of Offshore Helicopters

What you see today regarding offshore helicopter operations is extensive compared to the early years. The history of offshore helicopter operations is closely tied to the development of the helicopter itself and the increasing demand for transportation and support services in the offshore industry. The key milestones in the history of offshore helicopter operations are: 

Early Experimentation - Offshore helicopter operations can be traced back to the early experimental stages of helicopters in the 1940s and 1950s. The Sikorsky R-4 became one of the first helicopters to demonstrate its capability for offshore operations when it conducted a successful ship-based rescue in 1944. 

Development of Purpose-Built Aircraft – With oil and gas exploration expansion in the 1960s, there was a growing demand for helicopters or the need to quickly move pieces & parts between onshore and offshore. The offshore oil and gas industry significantly developed helicopter operations, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico and other offshore oil fields. For example, helicopters became a vital means of transportation for workers traveling to and from offshore oil platforms in the North Sea, particularly in the UK sector. 

Because of this demand, the 1960s saw the need to develop purpose-built helicopters designed explicitly for offshore operations (plus military purposes), such as the Sikorsky S-61 and the Boeing Vertol 107. These helicopters had improved range, capacity, and safety features, making them well-suited for offshore missions. 

Advancements in Operational Technology and Safety – From the 1970s to the present, technological advancements in helicopter design, navigation, and safety systems have contributed to the growth and safety of offshore helicopter operations. These advancements have led to the development modern, high-performance helicopters with enhanced capabilities. 

Overall, offshore helicopters have a rich history that has grown in parallel with the development of helicopters themselves and the increasing need for efficient transportation and support services in offshore environments.

The Hazards of Offshore Helicopter Operations 

What makes offshore helicopter operations more unique to other Aerial Work aviation sectors? Outside commercial airlines, general aviation, etc., offshore helicopter operations are often considered more challenging and riskier than other aviation sectors because of the dangers associated with operating in the maritime environment. Several factors rightly contribute to the perception or reality that offshore helicopter operations can be more dangerous. Some of the key dangers of offshore helicopter operations include:

Environmental Factors
Weather - Offshore helicopter operations are affected highly by weather conditions because they operate in the weather vs. over the weather. Offshore areas can experience severe weather conditions, including high winds, heavy rain, fog, and turbulence. These conditions can make helicopter flights hazardous, especially during takeoff and landing. 

Corrosion Exposure - Offshore environments can be harsh on a helicopter, with aircraft exposed to saltwater and the effects of saltwater corrosion. Regular maintenance and inspections are crucial to ensure the integrity of the helicopter and its components to prevent mechanical failures.

Operational Factors 
Limited Landing Options - Offshore platforms and vessels provide limited landing options, and finding a suitable place to land can be challenging in an emergency. This limitation increases the risk of multiple scenarios and accidents during emergencies. 

Night Operations - Many offshore helicopter operations occur at night, which can be more challenging due to reduced visibility. Night vision equipment mitigates this risk, but it's not foolproof. 

Helideck Operations - Landing and taking off from offshore helidecks can be complicated, especially in adverse weather conditions. Precise positioning, coordination with the platform's crew, and ensuring the helideck is clear of obstacles are critical for safe operations. 

Communication Challenges – Because most offshore helicopters operate low and over the horizon, maintaining clear communication between the helicopter crew, offshore platform personnel, and air traffic control is sometimes challenging. Communication issues can lead to misunderstandings and accidents.

Emergency Factors
Mechanical Failures – Compared to a Cessna C-150, helicopters have numerous moving parts, so there are more chances of mechanical failures. Problems with the engine, transmission, rotor system, or other critical components can pose significant risks to the safety of the crew and passengers in maritime conditions. 

Autorotation - Autorotation (which can otherwise be a beneficial safety feature) in onshore situations offers limited benefits compared to offshore situations. Harsh sea conditions during an autorotation incident (or Water Ditching) can destroy or disable safety and rescue systems, reducing survivors' chances of being saved. 

Water Rescue - Offshore platforms often have their own fire and rescue capabilities. Still, in a helicopter crash or emergency off a platform or ship, response times and resources can be limited, which increases the risk to passengers and crew. 

To mitigate these hazards, offshore helicopter operators adhere to strict safety protocols, conduct regular safety training, and use advanced technology to enhance safety. Regulatory agencies also impose stringent safety standards to minimize the risks associated with offshore helicopter operations. Despite these precautions, the inherent dangers of working in offshore environments make these operations inherently risky, and safety remains a top priority in the industry.

The Types of Helicopters Used for Offshore Operations 

To meet the demands of the different types of offshore operations and mitigate the hazards of flying in maritime conditions, helicopter operators use specific helicopter models. The selection process depends on the specific mission, range requirements, passenger capacity, and environmental conditions. 

However, some helicopter models have been commonly used for offshore operations due to their suitability. Here are some primary helicopter makes and models that are widely used in offshore operations: 

Sikorsky S-92 - The Sikorsky S-92 is a popular choice for offshore transport due to its large cabin, high payload capacity, and excellent range. It is often used for transporting personnel and cargo to offshore oil and gas platforms and offshore wind farms. The S-92 is known for its reliability and advanced safety features. 

Airbus Helicopters H225 (formerly Eurocopter EC225) - The Airbus H225 is another large helicopter commonly used in offshore operations. It offers a spacious cabin and the ability to transport a significant number of passengers. The H225 is suitable for long-range missions and is known for its durability and performance. 

Sikorsky S-76 - The Sikorsky S-76 is a medium-sized helicopter that has found applications in offshore operations. It is often used for medevac operations and can be configured for search and rescue missions. The S-76 is known for its versatility and steadfastness. 

AgustaWestland AW139 - The AW139 is a medium-sized helicopter widely used in various offshore operations. It offers a spacious cabin, good range, and excellent performance in challenging offshore conditions. 

Bell 412 - The Bell 412 is a medium-sized utility helicopter used for offshore transport, search and rescue, and other missions. It has a strong track record in offshore operations, particularly in regions like the Gulf of Mexico. 

Kamov Ka-32 - The Kamov Ka-32 is a Russian-built helicopter used in various offshore roles, including firefighting, cargo transport, and construction support. It is known for its compact size and adaptability. 

Leonardo AW101 - The Leonardo AW101, formerly the EH101, is used in offshore operations and maritime patrol missions. It has a spacious cabin and can operate in challenging weather conditions. 

Again, the choice of helicopter for offshore operations depends on the mission's specific needs, including distance, passenger capacity, cargo requirements, and environmental factors. Additionally, operators often select helicopters that balance performance, safety, and cost-effectiveness for their specific offshore operation.

The Future of Offshore Helicopter Services 

Like many things in our lives, the future of offshore helicopter services will likely be influenced by many factors and trends, including technological advancements, changes in the energy industry, regulatory developments, and environmental concerns. The following are some key aspects that may shape the future of offshore helicopter services:

Market Changes - The growing focus on renewable energy sources like wind/solar and the waning use of fossil fuels may lead to changes in offshore transportation needs, potentially impacting helicopter services. However, helicopter services may be involved in decommissioning and removal operations as offshore oil and gas platforms are decommissioned or support the construction and sustainment of wind and solar farms. 

Aircraft Technology - Advances in helicopter design, materials, and propulsion systems may lead to more efficient, quieter, and safer offshore helicopters, making helicopters an efficient option for future industry needs. 

Automation and Unmanned Systems - The development of autonomous and remotely piloted helicopters could reduce the need for onboard crew and enhance safety while providing continuous offshore services. 

Environmental Regulations - Stricter environmental regulations may drive the development of more eco-friendly helicopter technologies, such as electric or hybrid propulsion systems. 

Emergency Response and Search and Rescue (SAR) - Offshore helicopter services will continue to play a crucial role in emergency response and SAR missions, with technological advancements improving their effectiveness. A combination of these factors and more will likely shape the future of offshore helicopter services, and the industry will need to adapt to changing circumstances and priorities. To meet the future's unknown, safety, efficiency, and environmental sustainability will be at the forefront of future developments in this sector.

Summary 

With the need to bridge the space between land and mankind's activities in the high seas, helicopters are perfect for this job. Because of their VTOL abilities, helicopters are the mainstay of supporting many maritime industries' needs. Since the 1960s, the need for helicopters to provide unique services has only grown. 

Because of this demand, aircraft manufacturers have purposely built helicopters to meet the hazards of operating in maritime environments while meeting the needs of this sector. The primary types of helicopters in offshore operations range from large to medium-sized aircraft. Larger platforms like the Airbus Helicopters H225 or Bell 412 provide the lift and range that make it practical and economical to bridge the seven seas. 

With the need to support all the new and traditional industries that use the oceans, helicopters will continue to provide the pinpint VTOL lift and range required to professionally move tons of supplies and personnel to pinpoint spots in the ocean or rescue people off a distressed cruise ship in challenging maritime conditions. No other Aerial Work aviation sector can come close to the scale and volume of what they do globally.


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