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CAA report calls for ban on North Sea helicopter flights in severe weather

21 February 2014

Offshore helicopters will be banned from taking off in severe weather as part of the biggest shake-up in flight safety in the history of Britain’s oil and gas industry. A major review by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also calls for a limit on the size and number of offshore workers boarding North Sea flights to help save lives following a series of fatal crashes.

Stock image
Stock image

The changes are expected to cost the oil and gas industry millions of pounds and lead to additional offshore flights and the need for extra aircraft to be brought in by the big three North Sea helicopter firms. Pending these safety improvements, oil rig workers will only be able to fly if they are seated next to an emergency window exit and helicopters will not be allowed to take off during the worst conditions, known as Sea State Six, when waves are higher than 20ft.

The regulator said the move would make it easier for emergency services to carry out rescues at sea, but there are fears the restrictions - due to start from June 1 - could bring the industry to a standstill.

Jake Molloy, regional organiser for RMT, the UK transport trade union, said it was "cautiously welcoming" the new regulations, but said it would have an impact on workers getting to and from work. He pointed out that Sea State Six was equivalent to an average wave height of four metres which was common in the North Sea, and that it might rule out flights west of Shetland altogether.

Molloy said that the industry had voluntarily attempted bad weather restrictions in the aftermath of the fatal Cormorant Alpha helicopter crash in 1992, but the move had proved "extremely restrictive".

Operators are also expected to fit side floats to offshore helicopters, improve lifejackets and liferafts, and fit hand holds next to push-out windows to make escaping the aircraft easier. The regulator is also demanding upgrades to on-board emergency breathing equipment to maximise underwater survival time.

Until these improvements are carried out, offshore workers will be allowed to fly only if they are seated next to an emergency window exit. This will cut the number of passengers able to fly at any one time from about 19 to 13, depending on the aircraft model.

Pilot training and checks will also be overhauled, while the CAA will take on responsibility for inspecting and approving safety standards for each offshore helideck in the UK.

The report was commissioned in the wake of the fatal crash off the coast of Shetland in August, which claimed the lives of four offshore workers. The crash highlighted concerns about the UK's safety record in comparison to countries such as Norway.

Helicopter crashes in Scottish waters have claimed the lives of 38 people since 1997. There have been no deaths in Norwegian waters.

Jim McAuslan, general secretary of pilots' union, BALPA, said: "The CAA has recognised that independently setting and protecting decent helicopter flight safety standards in the North Sea is more effective than a 'light touch' approach.

"Pilots particularly welcome the ban on flying in adverse conditions and the recommendations on how the chances of surviving an incident can be improved."

The report comes as a Fatal Accident Inquiry continues into a Super Puma crash in the North Sea in April 2009, which killed all 16 on board.

From April 2015 the regulator is also calling for a limit, yet to be specified, to be applied to the size of offshore workers allowed to board North Sea helicopter flights. It is suggesting that the restriction be applied to allow all oil rig workers to escape through push-out window exits.

Robert Paterson, health, safety and employment issues director at trade association Oil & Gas UK, said last night that the changes recommended by the aviation regulatory authority represented a major challenge to the North Sea oil and gas industry and the helicopter ­companies.

He said: “We certainly welcome the report but some of the recommendations are going to be quite a challenge, particularly in the timescale that the CAA are talking about. The process of managing some of these changes needs to be done carefully in a considered and systematic way.”

The CAA estimates that the seating restrictions will mean many offshore helicopters will have to cut their passenger ­capacity by between 15 and 20 per cent.

Paterson said the restrictions would mean extra offshore flights and more aircraft having to be deployed for changing the crews on oil rigs.

The industry is already forecasting an increase in the number of flights this year by about 6%. He admitted: “That in itself will represent a challenge.”

Paterson said: “Safety does ­remain our number-one priority. We need to sit down and understand this and it would be ­entirely wrong to speculate on what the cost might be. It ­certainly won’t be without cost.”

Recent accidents on the UK Continental Shelf

August 2013: Four people are killed and 14 survive when a Super Puma AS332 L2 helicopter with 16 passengers and two crew ditches on its approach to Sumburgh airport on Shetland.

October 2012:
All 19 passengers and crew are rescued after a Super Puma EC225 ditches off Shetland.

May 2012:
All 14 passengers and crew on a Super Puma EC225 are rescued after the aircraft ditches around about 30 miles off the Aberdeenshire coast.

April 2009:
All 16 people on board a Super Puma AS332 L2 are killed when it crashes into the North Sea while returning from the BP Miller platform.

February 2009:
All 18 people on board are rescued after a Super Puma EC225 ditches in the North Sea as it approaches a platform in BP’s ETAP field.

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