Recent Crashes Put Focus on Helicopter Rides to Oil Rigs

February 3, 2009

Federal officials have pressed for more safety technology on helicopter flights that are the main form of transportation to more than 5,500 oil platforms located along Texas and Louisiana shores.

While progress has been made on some recommendations, little action has been taken on others, the Houston Chronicle reported.

A review of National Transportation Safety Board records by the newspaper shows helicopters shuttling oil platform workers have crashed 11 times in the past five years, killing 38 people.

In one of these crashes, 10 people died off the coast of Galveston in March 2004. In the most recent crash, a Sikorsky helicopter carrying seven oil-rig workers went down on Jan. 4 into a southern Louisiana marsh. Both pilots and six of the workers, including one Texan, died.

The causes for the crashes vary but include flying too low or running out of fuel.

There are as many as 9,000 flights to oil rigs each day, according to NTSB estimates. But they are done beyond the reach of radar over the Gulf, forcing pilots to fly at low altitudes and with ample distance from other aircraft, whose exact locations are unknown.

The Federal Aviation Administration, as part of a plan to change air traffic control systems from radar to satellite, has started installing hardware needed to track flights in the Gulf. The satellite-based technology is expected to provide better information on their location and the weather conditions.

“This is a really critical tool in trying to reduce accidents and improve communications,” said Martin Pociask, a spokesman for Helicopter Association International, a trade group that helped gain support for a satellite system in the Gulf of Mexico.

Most helicopter and platform operators have agreed to participate in the transition, and air traffic controllers are expected to begin directing traffic with the equipment late this year.

According to the FAA, parts of Alaska that are already using satellite tracking have reduced their accident rate by half.

In 2006, NTSB officials asked the FAA to require the installation of warning systems that would alert pilots flying dangerously close to terrain and to implement other ways to track flights in areas without radar coverage.

Investigators of the 2004 crash off the coast of Galveston concluded the helicopter crashed because the crew did not realize they were descending into the water.

The NTSB’s push for terrain warning systems has yet to prompt change. In 2006, the FAA began setting standards for such systems, which would be used in helicopters that ferry oil-rig workers as well as air ambulances.

Some operators have installed warning systems voluntarily. PHI Inc., the company that operated the flight that crashed Jan. 4, had installed an enhanced ground proximity warning system on that helicopter, but NTSB officials don’t know whether it was in use or what may have caused the crash

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