Long-Term Contracting Could Help Offshore Industry Renew Fleets

H160 helicopter
Shell’s arrangement with PHI and Airbus to use the H160 in the Gulf of Mexico is a significant endorsement of Airbus’ newest medium helicopter. Oil and gas support was one of the key target missions for the aircraft during development.
Credit: Airbus Helicopters

New approaches to longer-term contracting could be a bellwether for accelerating the introduction of new technology and new fleets to the offshore helicopter industry.

New fleets of helicopters are not at the top of the priority list for offshore helicopter operators today. More than five years of low oil prices have burdened them with a surplus of helicopters and leases that have tipped some of the biggest operators into bankruptcy.

  • H160 will begin offshore duties in Gulf of Mexico this year
  • HeliOffshore has developed guidance for operators in the wind farm support business

The pandemic has not helped either. Although offshore operations have not been ravaged as badly as the commercial airline industry has, demand for flights has fallen. Operations have been running at 75-80% of what they were in 2019 due to reduced crew sizes on offshore platforms.

The upcoming introduction of Airbus’ new H160 twin-engine helicopter to the Gulf of Mexico appears to buck the trend. Petroleum Helicopters Inc. (PHI) is due to debut one H160 on route-proving flights this year, and another three will join the fleet in 2022, when they will operate on behalf of Shell.

The H160’s entry into the oil and gas market is the result of a joint initiative between the OEM, PHI and Shell to bring in a new platform with enhanced safety features, lower operating and maintenance costs, and a reduced carbon footprint.

Most crucially, however, the aircraft will be introduced on a 10-year-long contract, rather than traditional 3-5-year-long deals, Tony Cramp, vice president of aircraft at Shell tells Aviation Week. “You will not find many 10-year contracts for [offshore helicopters] at the moment,” Cramp explains.

“Longer-term contracts provide the stability for the operators to obtain better credit rates for themselves,” he says. “And that is a key element of how we have been able to take this on. That probably needs to be a feature going forward, to enable operators to bring in new technology.”

Types such as the H160, Bell’s Model 525 Relentless and Sikorsky’s S-92A+/B and super-mediums like Airbus’ H175 and Leonardo’s AW189 are part of a new generation of rotorcraft within the industry that should further enhance offshore flight safety.

The Bell 525 brings with it fly-by-wire flight controls, the H160 introduces a vortex-ring-state warning system and a recovery device that returns the helicopter to stable-level flight, and Sikorsky is planning to introduce new main gearboxes and additional automation in the cockpit of the upgraded S-92.

Such technologies can reduce pilot workload and address some of the primary causes of accidents offshore.

But new fleets of helicopters are not cheap. Until sustained growth supports investment or until new initiatives, such as the one for the H160, gain momentum, the industry will continue tightening cooperation, sharing data and working on incremental steps to bolster flight safety through organizations such as industry safety body HeliOffshore and the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (IOGP).

After a series of fatal accidents in the North Sea between 2009 and 2016 shook the industry, safety performance is now “heading in the right direction,” says Cramp, who is also chairman of the IOGP Aviation Committee.

“More and more companies and operators are adopting the best practices, and what’s important for the operators is that the contracts that we give them require and pay for these processes,” Cramp says. “We’ve got to incentivize the practices and make sure they’re resourced properly, throughout the industry, to be effective.

“Money is tight right now . . . and that has been exacerbated through the events of the last year,” Cramp notes. “So the ability to pay for improved safety is obviously challenged at every point, and we have to be very careful about making the business case for each of these.”

Safety working groups have focused on accident causes—such as controlled flight into terrain, loss of control because of crew interaction or mismanagement in the cockpit, or aircraft system failures and reliability— and identified means to mitigate them. Among the mitigations is the development of standardized procedures on the use of aircraft systems automation as defined in the flight crew operating manuals (FCOM) drafted by the OEMs. Such documents, though standard in the fixed-wing world, are relatively new to the helicopter industry, which had allowed operators to develop their own procedures. This led to some misuse of automation that resulted in safety incidents. Many of the large and medium helicopters used by the offshore industry have now had FCOMs written for them, in part thanks to the efforts of HeliOffshore.

Work has also led to a bespoke rotary-wing terrain awareness and warning system (TAWS), which now equips Leonardo’s AW139 and will soon be used on other types.

Both FCOMs and the new helicopter TAWS (HTAWS) are deemed minimum requirements in new IOGP guidance, published in late 2020, on aviation standards for energy companies. IOGP Report 690: Offshore Helicopter Recommended Practices also calls for the use of safety management systems and states that offshore helicopters should have cameras in the cockpit and on the tail as well as obstacle warning systems and that aircraft should be certified to the most recent standards.

“A lot of what we’ve done over the years has been replicating the practices that have made the airline industry so safe,” Cramp says.

Although data suggests a recent positive trend in safety performance, the industry cannot “rest on its laurels,” says Tim Rolfe, CEO of HeliOffshore. He says work needs to be done to better understand how the implementing of new processes and procedures affects overall safety. “How do we make sure that recommended practices are effectively incorporated into the aviation system?” Rolfe asks. “That needs to be done deliberately. It is easy to assume that these things will happen either voluntarily or just as a factor of time, but actually we want to be a little bit more deliberate than that.”

Beyond developing FCOMs and HTAWs, HeliOffshore’s work groups are creating a series of “leading indicators” to understand safety performance better. They are also using a methodology called human hazard analysis (HHA) to ensure that the design of technical systems does not provoke errors during maintenance, with a particular focus on the elimination of catastrophic system failures.

“This is a real game changer for the helicopter industry,” Rolfe says. “But while we are talking about HHA at a design level, you can apply the same philosophy to cockpit design or extend further to pilot training.”

Sikorsky’s S-92
Sikorsky’s S-92 has become the backbone of many fleets in the oil and gas industry, and interest is growing in the upgraded S-92A+ and -B models. Credit: CHC 

Other areas of work for Heli-Offshore include preparation for the introduction of fly-by-wire platforms such as the Bell 525, which the OEM hopes to introduce into the market this year, and looking at how the new era of electric vertical-take-off-and-landing (eVTOL) aircraft could also influence offshore operations.

“We’ve got to keep our eye on the emerging technology, making sure that all operators within the aviation system are appropriately trained and supported to manage operations safely, particularly where manned and unmanned aircraft share the same airspace,” Rolfe says.

In the UK, several offshore operators are already supporting—or aiming to expand in—the offshore windfarm sector. CHC Group has bagged contracts to support construction of windfarms off Scotland. Babcock has been using small helicopters to hoist down engineers to wind turbines since 2011. And Bristow has described getting into the windfarm support market as a “strategic priority.”

Analysis by Air & Sea Analytics suggests the offshore windfarm helicopter fleet will expand to about 126 aircraft by 2030 from 27 aircraft today, but the task, particularly that of winching down engineers, will be limited to small and medium-size rotorcraft such as the Airbus H145 and Leonardo AW169.

Recognizing the shift toward wind farm operations, HeliOffshore has worked to develop a series of recommended practices for safe helicopter operations. Working in conjunction with the G+ Global Offshore Wind Health and Safety Organization, it has drafted a document that provides guidance for aircraft operations, performance, equipment and procedures.

Despite the rush toward a net-zero carbon-emission world, demand is unlikely to let up for offshore helicopter operations. The big energy companies are using oil and gas revenues to fund their energy transition. There is, however, less focus on going farther offshore; instead, energy companies are looking to explore within existing fields and using new technologies to extract reserves that previous technology could not reach. And they will need helicopters to help decommission platforms some day.

Tony Osborne

Based in London, Tony covers European defense programs. Prior to joining Aviation Week in November 2012, Tony was at Shephard Media Group where he was deputy editor for Rotorhub and Defence Helicopter magazines.