UPSTREAM: Don’t Sacrifice Helicopter Safety During Low Oil Prices and Industry Cutbacks

by James T. Crouse on May 9, 2016

in Helicopter Safety

The Editors of UPSTREAM, the International Oils and Gas newsletter published out of London, printed the following editorial which urged that helicopter safety should not be dependent on market economic forces and cutbacks related to those forces:

Helicopter safety is priority number one

The latest helicopter deaths in the North Sea are another grim reminder of the dangers of travelling to work in the offshore industry.

But they are more than this.

The accident comes at a time when a collapse in the oil price has led to cost-cutting, pilot claims of stress and increased fears around safety.

The Norwegian and British civil aviation authorities have rightly imposed a flight ban on the type of aircraft used, the Airbus-built Eurocopter Super Puma EC 225LP.

The flight recorders have been recovered, so there is a better chance of finding out exactly what went wrong.

Until we know this, no one should jump to any conclusions about what the right remedies might be to prevent this happening again.

But the 13 killed near Bergen flying on a CHC Helicopter Service-owned Super Puma were not caught up in a one-off incident.

Rather, this is just the latest in a sad roll call of fatalities suffered in air crashes in the past five years.

These were the first deaths in Norway involving a helicopter since 1997, but it is less than three years since all UK Super Pumas were grounded by CHC after another of its aircraft plunged into the North Sea off the Shetlands. That accident left four people dead and was later ascribed to pilot error.

A year before that, the 225 model Super Puma was grounded again after two separate emergency landings, off Aberdeen and the Shetlands. And in 2009, a Super Puma crash off Peterhead killed 16 people after a gearbox failure.

There was a major review by air safety authorities in the light of these earlier incidents, and plenty of recommendations made.

And whatever the eventual cause of the crash is found to be, this is not the right time to sweep under the carpet concerns over whether sudden spending cuts are undermining wider safety and staff morale.

Barely a week ago, the Petroleum Safety Authority in Norway warned that the industry was at a “crossroads”, with injury and hydrocarbon emission statistics on their way up. The authority is reluctant to conclude that the increases are due to cutbacks.

But it is unsurprising that Leif Sande, the leader of Norway’s biggest oil union, Industri Energi, says it is “fair” to talk of safety in the wake of the Super Puma downing, adding: “It’s about time we started a discussion about safety on the Norwegian shelf and what effect the savings programmes are having on our safety, because something is wrong.”

The British pilots union, Balpa, complained bitterly last September at the annual Trades Union Congress conference that there was a “race to the bottom” and “hard-nosed” management methods were damaging the industry.

If the Bergen helicopter accident does one thing, it is to re-emphasise to everyone that safety must be a priority.

Oil and gas extraction is a dangerous industry, and helicopters have long been considered a weak spot. They would not be used if there were a viable alternative for transporting people to and from rigs and platforms in all kinds of weather.

It is not just in the North Sea where lessons will want to be learned. The number of offshore workers in Australia travelling to work on helicopters has more than doubled in 10 years.

The industry depends on helicopters, and it is crucial that safe and responsible standards are applied — whatever the oil price — to reduce the risks as low as is humanly possible.

At Aviation Safety Blog, we add our enthusiastic “amen.” We have see what expediency can do when a transmission modification was rushed through on the Boing Vertol 234 back in 1986, causing the world’s largest civilian helicopter disaster—also in the North Sea.

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