Offshore helicopter safety - Transport Committee Contents

2  Offshore helicopter operations

8. The North Sea is a hostile environment for helicopter operations. Helicopter flights over the North Sea are relatively high risk compared with transport by fixed-wing aircraft. Despite that risk, both industry and regulators recognise that helicopters are the most practical mode of transport for transferring personnel between oil and gas installations and the mainland. Despite its relatively high cost, the offshore oil and gas industry favours helicopter transfer over fixed-wing aircraft or ships. Helicopter transfer is unaffected by the surge of the sea and provides higher speed and greater efficiency than fixed-wing aircraft or ships. Unite told us that 99.1% of offshore transportation is by helicopter. Unite also stated that

    the average number of flights undertaken annually per worker is approximately 28.6. The majority fly less than 40 helicopter flights annually but a significant minority of workers fly more frequently […] taking over 40 flights annually.[3]

9. The North Sea is served by a mixed fleet of around 95 helicopters[4] including models manufactured by Airbus, Sikorsky and AgustaWestland. The National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) stated that Super Puma models AS332 L, L1, L2 and EC225 account for 60% of the North Sea helicopter fleet[5] with the Sikorsky S-92 and the Airbus Super Puma EC225 serving as the workhorses of the industry.[6]

10. The Department for Transport (DfT) stated that approximately 57,000 individuals work in the North Sea at some 600 facilities. The main operating bases are Aberdeen, Scatsta (Shetland), Norwich, North Denes (Norfolk), Humberside and Blackpool. The offshore oil and gas industry is served by some 100 flights a day.[7] Those flights are conducted by three main helicopter operators—Bristow Helicopters, Bond Offshore Helicopters and CHC Helicopter. Those operators employ almost 2,000 people in the UK. In 2012, they carried more than 500,000 passengers to installations across the North Sea.[8] The southern North Sea contains a particularly large number of normally unmanned installations which are particularly affected by the CAA's proposed regulation in relation to helicopter safety, and this part of the UK Continental Shelf (UKCS) is key to domestic gas supply. The UKCS as a whole is critical to the UK economy.

Sumburgh crash

11. The crash off Sumburgh, Shetland, occurred on 23 August 2013. An AS332 L2 Super Puma carrying 18 people was on approach to Sumburgh Airport where it was due to refuel before returning to Aberdeen. At 17.17 the helicopter crashed into the sea 1.5 nautical miles (2,780 metres) west of Sumburgh airport. Four passengers died as a result. An interim report by the AAIB found no evidence of mechanical failure.

12. The AAIB published a further bulletin on 18 October 2013, which found that the rescue boat did not reach the crash location for nearly an hour, although a search and rescue helicopter arrived after 26 minutes. The rescue boat was unable to launch from its slipway due to unfavourable tidal conditions. A 2010 airport safety survey suggested that the slipway was useable in only 11% of tidal conditions. An attempt was made to use another launch site, but the rescue boat became bogged down in the soft sand. When the rescue boat was finally launched successfully, it had to make a six nautical mile open sea transit to the crash location. The AAIB recommended that Sumburgh Airport "provides a water rescue capability, suitable for all tidal conditions, for the area of sea to the west of Sumburgh" and that "the CAA review the risks associated with the current water rescue provision for the area of sea to the west of Sumburgh Airport and take appropriate action."[9] The crash investigation is continuing.

Emergency Breathing System

13. An Emergency Breathing System (EBS) is a form of underwater breathing apparatus. It reduces the risk to life when a helicopter capsizes by extending underwater survival time. On 23 January, the AAIB published a special bulletin on the EBS provided to the victims of the Sumburgh crash. The bulletin revealed the pre-flight safety briefing video did not fully represent the EBS supplied to passengers. The safety video did not highlight that the EBS provided was a hybrid rebreather containing an air supply which was discharged automatically into the rebreather bag, or that the system could be used even if the wearer had not taken a breath before becoming submerged. The AAIB bulletin stated that that discrepancy "may […] influence a passenger's decision on whether or not to use the EBS in an emergency situation."[10]

14. The helicopter involved in the Sumburgh crash was operated by CHC Helicopter. Duncan Trapp, Vice President of Safety and Quality for CHC Helicopter, set out his view on the safety briefing:

    I would like to perhaps change the wording of the AAIB bulletin, which certainly highlighted an area for improvement, but I do not think to describe the safety briefing as flawed accurately captures what we put in place. As the Committee saw this morning, there is a comprehensive safety brief for all passengers going offshore. The bulletin rightly identified an area where improvement and clarification could be provided on that particular piece of safety equipment.[11]

However, John Taylor, Regional and Industrial Organiser at Unite, told us that the EBS issue was evidence of complacency and that the industry has a culture of evading responsibility for mistakes.[12] Furthermore, survivors of the Sumburgh crash strongly disagreed that the EBS briefing only needed "improvement and clarification". Survivors told us that they did not use the EBS, because they had insufficient time to breathe into it before they were submerged. If they had known how the EBS worked, the survivors were confident that they would have used it.[13] Some survivors described their intense psychological stress after reading the AAIB's findings on the EBS.[14]

15. The CAA review into offshore helicopter safety called for further improvements in safety equipment, including the EBS. We welcome that recommendation. The industry currently uses an EBS known as 'Category B'. The CAA review stated that that EBS is inadequate when it is deployed at short notice or underwater.[15] The CAA review highlighted improved EBS technology, known as 'Category A', which can be rapidly deployed underwater. The CAA has stated that Category A EBS will be mandatory from 1 January 2015.[16] The provision of the improved EBS will require a corresponding update to training and pre-flight briefing material. It is imperative that that is completed as new safety equipment is introduced and not after the fact.

16. Pre-flight briefing material must accurately describe how to use safety equipment. It is deeply disturbing that it took a fatal accident before the flawed EBS briefing was identified. The CAA must ensure that helicopter operators regularly review all safety briefing material to ensure that it is up to date. In addition, the CAA must consult the offshore work force to ensure that safety briefing material is easily understood and fit for purpose.

Crash investigation

17. The AAIB contacted survivors and took personal statements to inform its crash investigation. The survivors whom we met described their frustration that since that initial contact they had found it difficult to engage with the ongoing investigation. Survivors were disappointed that they had not been kept abreast of developments and in some cases had learned of AAIB findings through the media rather than being contacted beforehand. After the accident, survivors believed that they were "left in the dark", because it was not clear where they might obtain help and advice.[17] Many survivors were unable to work, because of long-term trauma resulting from the accident. While some psychological help was available, some survivors were unable to access financial support, which was a significant source of stress for them and their families.

18. The survivors' experiences have inspired a number of practical suggestions for improving safety. Those suggestions are outlined in Appendix A. They included fitting more sophisticated lighting around egress windows, making survival suits more visible and applying luminous markings to rescue ropes and other equipment.[18]

19. AAIB findings have a significant impact on survivors and their families, who deserve to be briefed on upcoming announcements. The AAIB must keep crash survivors informed on the progress of investigations. The CAA could learn a great deal by meeting survivors and considering their experiences. For example, survivors' suggestions on enhancing the visibility of equipment are compelling and are drawn from personal experience. More widely, the oil and gas industry must examine the experiences of crash survivors. In particular, more must be done to address the financial and psychological anxiety of survivors who cannot work.

Helicopter accidents

20. Between 1976 and 2013, 73 helicopter accidents occurred in the UK's offshore sector.[19] Thirteen of those accidents resulted in fatalities. Table 1 shows the annual accident rates since 1976.[20]

Table 1: accident rates between 1976 and 2013[21]

21. Since 2002, the UK offshore oil and gas industry has suffered 38 fatalities. The five most recent accidents (since 2009) have all involved Super Puma variants and three of those accidents were caused by problems with the gearbox:

·  February 2009 - A Super Puma EC225 ditched in fog a short distance from a BP oil platform 125 miles east of Aberdeen. All 18 people on board survived. The AAIB attributed the accident to crew error and a faulty alert system.

·  April 2009 - All 14 passengers and two crew on board a Super Puma AS332 L2 were killed after it crashed in the North Sea. The AAIB attributed the accident to a catastrophic gearbox failure.

·  May 2012 - All 14 people on board a Super Puma EC225 were rescued when it crashed about 30 miles off the coast of Aberdeen. The AAIB attributed the accident to a gearbox failure.

·  October 2012 - All 19 people on board a Super Puma EC225 were rescued safely after it ditched in the sea off Shetland. The AAIB found that the incident was caused by a cracked shaft in the main gearbox. [22]

·  August 2013 - Four people died when a Super Puma AS332 L2 crashed into the sea as it approached Sumburgh, Shetland. The AAIB investigation is ongoing.

In April this year, EASA certified a redesigned vertical gear shaft for the EC225. Gilles Bruniaux, Vice President of Fleet Safety at Airbus Helicopters, assured us that problems with the Super Puma gearboxes have now been "completely fixed".[23]

22. The five most recent accidents all involved Super Pumas. We heard that the offshore work force has consequently lost confidence in Super Pumas.[24] In contrast, no accidents involving Sikorsky S-92s have occurred in the UK offshore sector, although there have been two accidents involving S-92s abroad—one in South Korea in 2008 and another off the Newfoundland coast in 2009.[25] Unite told us that after the Sumburgh crash, it was "inundated by the concerns expressed by our offshore membership regarding their confidence in the safety of the UK offshore oil and gas sector helicopter fleet, specifically regarding the various Super Puma types".[26] After the Sumburgh crash, a Facebook campaign called for the discontinuation of Super Pumas in the offshore sector.[27]

23. We were disturbed to hear that just weeks before the Sumburgh crash workers who had raised concerns about the airworthiness of Super Pumas were told by officials at the oil company Total to put on "big-boy pants" or quit if they could not deal with the risk of helicopter crashes.[28] That insensitive approach further eroded confidence in Super Pumas among the offshore work force. Several survivors of the Sumburgh crash were present at that meeting and cited it as an example of a poor reporting culture where legitimate concerns were dismissed.[29] The RMT union described a culture of "macho bullying that exists with the tacit acceptance of the employers."[30] Robert Paterson, Health, Safety and Employment Issues Director at Oil & Gas UK said the oil and gas industry collaborate well with the offshore work force. However, he accepted that that incident highlighted the need to rebuild work force confidence and to improve communication between workers and managers.[31]

24. We find it unacceptable that offshore workers were told by an operations manager that they should leave the industry if they were concerned about helicopter safety. In an inherently hazardous industry, operations managers must prioritise safety, which means facilitating a culture of approachability and openness at all levels.

Comparing safety

25. It is difficult to compare the safety records of different helicopter manufacturers. Mark Swan, Director Safety, Airspace and Regulation, CAA, told us that the various models of Super Puma are all "quite distinct aircraft".[32] That makes it difficult to draw conclusions on the airworthiness of the collective Super Puma brand compared with other helicopters. In addition, the relatively small number of helicopter accidents makes it difficult to detect statistically meaningful trends. Keith Conradi, Chief of Inspectors at the AAIB, stated:

    The problem is that, dealing with such limited numbers [of accidents], to try to get any statistical relevance from them could be misleading. If you look globally, I do not know of any information that suggests that the EC225, or any of the Super Pumas, is more likely to have an accident than any other type.[33]

26. The oil and gas industry has tried to improve the perception of Super Pumas. In that context, Oil & Gas UK and Step Change in Safety outlined measures aimed at workers and their families, which included helicopter awareness courses, town hall conferences and pilot briefings.[34] When Unite consulted the offshore work force, however, it found a worrying lack of confidence in helicopter travel in general and in Super Pumas in particular. [35] The findings of that consultation are set out in Table 2.

Table 2: Confidence in different helicopter models amongst the offshore work force[36]

27. Super Puma variants make up some 60% of the offshore helicopter fleet, which means that it is unsurprising that they are involved in more accidents than other models. We heard no conclusive evidence that Super Puma variants are less safe than other helicopters used in the UK offshore sector. We welcome the work by operators, manufacturers and industry safety groups to engage with the offshore work force to address their concerns about Super Pumas.

3   Unite (HCS0008) para 3.2.1 Back

4   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), para 2.4 Back

5   RMT (HCS0015) para 4.2 Back

6   Unite (HCS0008) para 3.2.2 Back

7   DfT (HCS0005) para 1.2 Back

8   Bond, Bristow Helicopters Limited and CHC Helicopter (HCS0001) para 1.3 Back

9   AAIB, S7/2013 (October 2013), page 8 Back

10   AAIB, S1/2014 (January 2014), page 3 Back

11   Q2 Back

12   Q5 Back

13   Appendix A Back

14   ibid Back

15   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), para 9.9 Back

16   CAA,CAA announces changes to timescales for Offshore helicopter safety measures, accessed 2 July 2014 Back

17   Appendix A Back

18   Appendix A Back

19   The current system of recording helicopter accidents was introduced in 1976. Back

20   CAA, Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations in support of the exploitation of oil and gas (February 2014), para.1.7. Back

21   Ibid. Back

22   The AAIB has published a further report on the May and October 2012 ditches, Aircraft Accident Report 2/2014 (June 2014)  Back

23   Q54 Back

24   Unite (HCS0008) para 1.2 Back

25   Sikorsky (HCS0014) page 2 Back

26   Unite (HCS0008) para 1.2 Back

27   Destroy the Super Pumas, accessed 2 July 2014 Back

28   Daily Mail, If you can't live with the risk don't work offshore': Oil workers were told to put on their 'big-boy pants' at safety meeting just weeks before Shetland helicopter crash, accessed 2 July 2014 Back

29   Appendix A Back

30   RMT (HCS0015) para 4.5 Back

31   Q51 Back

32   Q93 Back

33   Q94 Back

34   Step Change in Safety (HCS0021) page 1 & Q52 [Robert Paterson] Back

35   Unite (HCS0008) para 3.1 Back

36   Unite (HCS0008) para 3.3.3 Back

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Prepared 8 July 2014