Could the Viking SES-2A have been in a 007 movie? Right you have the 1971 classic Diamonds are Forever starring Scotland’s favourite ex pat Sean Connery. Remember the scene below, Blofeld’s oil platform. It was THE cleanest, THE quietest rig in the world. Picture a big fight, machine guns and lots of gratuitous explosions. Great stuff.
When Bond arrives, there is no wrist tight survival suit, he has a tux. There is no chopper, he has a silver balloon thing that he walks across a flat calm sea. The other day I was looking at job related things and I remembered these. The SES-2A evacuation system by Viking.
These systems can be installed up to a height of 81 metres and I think they are every bit worthy of Bond. You know I’m surprised they didn’t have something in the movie like this… it would have been pretend, but the franchise did a good job of predicting technology over the years.
For Those That Have Not Seen Them
The apparatus descends in an emergency leaving a mesh chute to extend to an inflatable platform. Then they demonstrate a person dropping down the chute. The interior is made up of fabric steps so you drop onto one and gravity and scrambling takes you to the next. It is a bit like a soft spiral staircase, you bounce down on your backside.
I recommend turning the sound off if you watch this all the way through. Fantastic systems, lousy music.
Obviously if the emergency is fire then ( as with the Piper Alpha tragedy) the system might be compromised, then again all evacuation plans could in theory be obstructed. In a potentially lethal situation these SES-2As would come into their own by providing a viable back up to normal routes of escape.
The platform that inflates is large and capable of providing access to four high capacity rafts. Getting back to the movie. Blofeld is lowered in an escape pod. 007 hijacks a crane and starts smashing the villain into buildings as he dangles on the end of a chain. He would definitely preferred the SES-2A system.
A focus on offshore helicopter safety happens for me every time I get on one. They are the blessing and curse of any offshore worker’s rotation. Nothing is more disappointing than to be psyched up ready for off and then we get the dreaded delay. Once on board , though familiarity puts risk to the back of my mind to some extent it is always there.
In recent years there have been many changes to operating helicopters offshore, so do any preventable risks still exist?
What Tends to Go Wrong
It is tempting to turn this article into a memorial piece. Our hearts go out to the people who both are killed and injured when a helicopter goes down and the people they love left behind. Maybe I lament these accidents so much because of the nature of these tragedies. I love my job but I get on those aircraft in order to earn a living, not for leisure. They are the scene of elation at the thought of a trip home and sometimes shear determination at the tasks awaiting at sea.
However, forefront of my mind while writing this is the reality that such accidents are rare and for example it is still statistically safer than a drive to the supermarket..
The last oil and gas related air accident to occur (North Sea) was when thirteen were killed while travelling to Bergen, Norway from the Gullfaks B Platform. A sudden failure of the planet gears caused the rotor to detach.
Safety issues that are peculiar to offshore air transport were not really relevant in this case. The weather was good, the pilots were not challenged regarding visibility and the loss of life was not due to the peculiarities of operating over a hostile sea. Sadly the stricken aircraft crashed onto a small island.
This sudden catastrophic failure was caused by a previous fault that was unknown to the pilot and remains of an unknown origin at the time of writing.
Previous accidents, however, have driven the search for improved safety features and operating parameters.
A look at accidents that have forced a helicopter down while on North Sea operations shows they were primarily caused by mechanical failure. In almost all cases, though warned that something awful had occurred, crew had no chance to rectify the situation before the aircraft had to descend. In cases where the primary cause was not mechanical, such things as lightening strikes and poor visibility featured significantly.
The thing is we in this region are not exclusively at risk. Wherever offshore air transport is used the same issues occur. The last such tragedy happened only a month ago off the coast of Angola. Six people lost their lives when a chopper came down in the sea while flying in poor weather.
So What About the Future?
In many cases it is not the impact that kills. Rather it is the conditions you find yourself in.
First there is the escape. After studying other accidents the CAA ( UK Civil Aviation Authority) required improvements in planning for an emergency. The most significant was that Cat A emergency breathing systems (EBS) were required for passengers. This was because taking enough breath in order to escape a capsized aircraft was not always possible based on the physical condition of both the personnel and aircraft post impact. More time was needed.
The limitations of types of aircraft were examined and the weather they could fly in was restricted to improve the likely hood of the chopper remaining upright and floating. In addition, it became mandatory that operators ensure the flotation systems could be deployed automatically if needed and that all seating should be adjacent to an escape point.
Particular attention was given to the issue of the buoyancy of the helicopter itself.
I think it would be fantasy to look at the dynamics of chopper design and believe you could get them to behave in a heaving sea just like a boat. However, how long that lump of metal floats for is the main issue when it comes to surviving a ditching.
A good example of this was when in Feb 2009 all hands were rescued after the chopper they were in deployed flotation and ditched. The sea was relatively calm and as a result the aircraft remained upright about 120 miles offshore of Aberdeen.
It is when the aircraft rolls over that things become critical. This happens for a variety of reasons, the flotation system, being low down, can be damaged on impact or the angle of descent makes it unlikely it will float upright in the first place.
So the CAA pointed to systems where a flotation device acts as back up to the conventional ones already fitted. This second line of defence is encased high up on the air frame. In heavier seas as the chopper tilts in order to capsize the secondary air bags may prevent it turning over. If it does go over tests show it will tilt leaving an escape gap and possible access to air. This means there is a significant angle in the water, it is not perfect, but for those battling to escape it could provide vital minutes to clear into life rafts.
So Here is the Rub
Chapter 9 ( P39) of the CAA – Safety review of offshore public transport helicopter operations deals with the ditching of choppers in the sea.
In ‘actions’ it lists many of the changes we might have noticed since mid 2014. There are quite a few and all the easier ones were given time limits that have since passed. However, the side flotation devices that would back up the main floats and minimise the danger of capsize were only recommendations.
I am not dismissing the positive effect and action regarding this report or the improvements the operators have made. I am saying that given surviving in these situations is difficult then any and all measures to increase the likely hood of survival should be taken and should be mandatory.
It was found that there were designs of helicopter that could likely float in gentle sea states, but any weather above sea state 5 presented problems for all. This is due to the high centre of gravity caused by the position of the engine, gears and transmission.
So it is acknowledged that in conditions like the above helicopters will struggle to stay upright using standard emergency flotation. The below shows how in good conditions a chopper behaves post ditching.
In the EASA research (below) they anticipate that even with the additional floats the helicopter will partially capsize, however, tests show that an air pocket and open gap would be available to aid escape. If that gap exists, granted it would be terrifying, then extra time would be afforded to at least some of those trapped inside.
What do you think? Do you know of any such systems fitted? At the time of writing I can find no mention of them on the web nor is there a mention of calls for them to be introduced beyond the recommendations of two plus years ago.
The only useful thing I can say from reading the documents I have put links to is that being familiar with the particular aircraft you find yourself in is vital. If a new or unfamiliar type lands on the helideck then take extra time to look at the devices for opening emergency escape points.
It was found that in past accidents even the unfamiliar way a release system operates has cost lives.
This is just a quick thought and sign post for the below article. The suggestion is that offshore safety is in danger of being compromised when the drive to make a profit in hard times becomes the main priority.
After each safety lapse another report will come out and most, such as the Cullen and Key Performance reports, can be said to have great value. The reality is of course that there are no jobs without a healthy income, however, the financial consequence of compromising safety can be catastrophic. That is without mentioning the moral and legal after effect of reckless working practice.
Frank Doran wrote in HSE International of the link between pressure in economic downturns and safety lapses. The article, written in March 2015, might be best judged now with the benefit of 18 months hindsight.
Frank makes many good points. I also think he illustrates well that when the clock is ticking toward a deadline and when the squeeze is on financially, that is the time to take more care. I thought I would give it another mention. See what you think.
The history of emergency services out in the wilds is as fascinating as any thriller written about spies and cops and robbers. Of course for those outside this industry their contact with the like of Wild Well Control has been no more than an old movie and occasional TV news items.
John Wayne played a character called Chance Buckman in a 1968 film about a hard nosed oil fire fighting outfit. Apart from that these people, the ones we hope to never call, largely go unnoticed.
The Glory Days
There probably were earlier examples of controlling a runaway well but the recognised grandfather of the emergency control business was Myron M Kinley’s dad. In 1913 Karl Kinley used dynamite to ‘blow’ out a gushing fire in California. Myron and his brother took the primitive technique and became the pioneers to call when everything went pear shaped.
From him you got the like of Red Adair, the charismatic celebrity of the oil fire business. Adair, who John Wayne was said to have been loosely portraying, was the main man in the industry for many years. He, along with Wild Well, were one of the contractors that tackled the Kuwaiti fields when they were torched by retreating Iraqi troops. Earlier he had been called in to the tragic aftermath of the Piper Alpha disaster.
Many of the next generation in this specialist field learned from the like of Adair. Among those that moulded early efforts into a fine art and adapted operations to Thunderbirds standards was one Joe R Bowden Sr.
The Battle for Elgin
In 2012 in the Elgin field (main platform) work was underway to seal a well. Things went very wrong. Petrol condensate fired into the air and 238 personnel from Elgin and two other operations were evacuated. Later reports concluded that luck had played a big part in preserving life. Fortunately the winds stopped a inflammable cloud from coming into contact with the flaming stack.
150 miles away in Aberdeen, Scotland, there happened to be a Wild Well Control staging point. The idea Bowden Sr developed was to maintain a base in Texas, however, put the heavy kit required for emergencies near where you may need it.
A system failure in February 2012 led to repairs and the attempt to close the well. After ten days control was lost. It took a further fifty one days to bring the crisis to a point it could be managed. Unfortunately by that time thousands of tons of condensate had settled on the sea. Understandably marine conservationists were less than happy.
French giant, Total, was fined later for safety breaches that led to the accident but far worse for them was the year the platform was offline.
Wild Well Control’s 80%
That is the share of the Thunderbirds type business that Wild Well have. They claim even more customer loyalty in the oil and gas industry in the USA. More importantly from my point of view they bring their unique experience into the safety and preventative field. They have dedicated HSE teams which give an insight into the importance of safety procedures that have real clout.
I hope you never NEED to contact them, however, if you want to look at this specialist area with a view to your future they promise excellent training. Click here.
A piece of paper, a wrench, some rubber matting and weak walls were all that stood between a normal night on a rig and an infamous disaster. With respect we should learn from Piper Alpha.
That at least was the bog basic findings of the Cullen Report into the Piper Alpha disaster. On 6th July 1988, 167 men lost their lives because of a series of small mistakes made on a North Sea rig,120 miles north east of Aberdeen. No-one knows for sure what was said and done and any narrative of the moments that led up to the first explosion will not be exact. Too many of those on the rig never got to tell the tale.
Though health and safety in offshore operations was there prior to that night, what is now known of the events kickstarted the modern safety orientated approach of today.
An hour long documentary about the disaster which concentrates on the human aspect rather then the technical.
In Brief, Why?
On the morning of the disaster two work permits were filled out.
One for routine maintenance of a gas (LPG) pump and the other for maintenance of the safety valve for the pump. Both of these were vital parts of regulating gas flow. It is important to note that the permits were filed separately as the pump and the valve were located in different areas of the rig.
Another similar set up was left to operate throughout and if that had worked through the night almost certainly nothing untoward would have happened.
Late in the afternoon the safety valve work was not finished. The last man on it placed a cap on the pipe and it is believed he tightened the nuts around it finger tight.
The night shift came on and everything went well until the operating pump and valve developed a fault, which despite serious effort could not be rectified.
It was essential for the gas to continue being pumped otherwise all electrical power to the platform would be lost. The worst consequence of that would be a shut down of operation and the huge cost that entailed.
Of course there was another pump which was idle. The permit was checked and on the face of it the work had been carried out so naturally it was primed with a small amount of gas ready to go online. In a different box, because it was in a different area, the unfinished work permit for the safety valve lay unread.
A gas alarm sounded in the control room, this was reported and crew asked to check. Unfortunately as they went to do so several more alarms went off. At around 22.00 hrs a violent explosion shook the rig.
When he recovered, the operator in the control room shut down all key valves but as smoke filled the room that was all he could do. The external alarm system had been destroyed and within minutes most of the key personnel who could have directed a response were also out of action. Two other control staff donned breathing apparatus and went back to try and start the fire control, neither was seen again.
Gas had escaped from the poorly secured cap on the unfinished safety valve and it ignited. It was seen by a boat crew emitting a blue flame from underneath the rig. A short time later a bigger explosion followed. The gas explosion had ripped through the walls between two of the operation modules. The walls were only designed to take heat not the pressure of the blast. This was because originally Piper Alpha had only been intended to carry oil. The walls were fine for normal safety in an oil fire, less so for gas. Pieces of the wall ignited another gas line which in turn ignited oil which spilled due to back pressure.
Burning oil ran from underneath the module and should have dropped into the sea. This meant it going through some steel grating which divers had covered with rubber matting. An ordinary enough thing to do as they were working from the area. It was one of those things, it was the timing that was vital rather than the action. In fairness to those divers the grating was not designed to ever see burning oil in the first place. Granted we know now, hindsight is a beautiful thing.
The oil hit and burned, slowed by the matting and above it was another pipe. This one was high pressure gas carrying a supply from another rig, Tartan. The pipe exploded and essentially that was the end of Piper Alpha.
From then on the design of the rig was its downfall. Piper Alpha carried the oil and gas produced by not only Tartan but also by the Claymore. These continued the routine pumping of fuel into the Piper Alpha because initially they knew no better. In normal circumstances this would have been sent onward to be processed. As it was both sources fuelled the fires which at times shot hundreds of feet into the air.
Within the space of a murderous two hours the platform and all still on it fell into the sea. Only a single part, Module A, remained, burnt out and with no survivors.
From start to finish pretty much everything that could go wrong had. The external alarm system had been destroyed and though workers followed procedure – what they could have never known was that the helideck, the main hope of rescue, was obscured by smoke and flames. No helicopter was going to get anywhere near it. Many remained in the accommodation block or the galley awaiting a rescue that could not make it.
Individuals and groups made their decisions to stay or chance escape. Some made it, some didn’t. All those who remained, largely in the galley, were killed.
Six who got to an escape boat were then killed by the Tartan gas explosion. Their craft having been stranded by debris two crew of the rescue launch also died.
For many the choice was to leap into the water, some from as high as 175 ft up. The explosions had destroyed the lifeboats, parts of which had fallen into the sea. One survivor tells of being trapped in a store only to be freed by a blast that opened the floor and the far wall. Three of his companions he never saw again.
Great help was given by several vessels and helicopters that made it to the scene and if they had not been on hand and willing to risk their lives far more souls would have been lost.
Another of the many tragic ironies was that one vessel, Tharos, a semi submersible support vessel with powerful seawater hoses that could be used to cool the structure also risked killing those attempting to get off the rig.
The Cullen Report
The Cullen Report pieced evidence together from eye witness accounts, photographic evidence taken from ships in the area and later what was raised from the sea. Incredibly even after being underwater for months the work permit was still intact.
The operator, Occidental, came in for a lot of criticism but no prosecution. Many changes were made to future safety policies not least of which was the transferring of responsibility for safety from the Department for Energy to the Health and Safety Executive.
I write it here with the greatest of respect for those who were lost and those that survived. I don’t criticise with 20/20 vision, because of the lessons learned from their suffering many of us have not had to face what they did.
There is a saying that is very applicable to such situations and even though safety policies can be frustrating when they stand in the way of profit and the need to ‘get things done’ it sums up what happened that night.
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the message was lost. For want of a message the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.