Guidance System Shows Promise for Oil Rig Helicopter Pilots

Imagine zooming from 200 feet in the sky onto a small green circle in the middle of a vast, dark ocean.

Louisiana helicopter pilots do it daily, carrying workers to and from offshore oil rigs. It often takes more than two hours over Gulf waters to fly to a rig, but the final minutes can be the most nerve-shredding.

“You’re basically maneuvering a 70-square-foot steel box next to a skyscraper,” veteran oil rig helicopter pilot Ron Doeppner said.

“Night landings can be very difficult; you’re in complete darkness with two small lights to guide you to the landing platform,” Doeppner said. “You don’t willingly fly into a storm, but one can sneak up on you over the ocean so you may have to land with zero visibility in high winds.”

A new automated helicopter guidance system created in Lafayette makes those landings safer and easier, even in bad weather and total darkness. The system is called Rig Approach, and it got its maiden voyage in November on an S-92 helicopter flown by PHI Inc.’s Lafayette-based pilots.

PHI approached Sikorsky Aircraft – the company that makes Black Hawk helicopters for the military – five years ago and asked Sikorsky to create software that helped pilots in an array of situations.

As chief research and development pilot for Sikorsky, Doeppner tested every aspect of the guidance system himself, first in a simulator, then in the sky.

“Rig Approach gets all of its data from the satellite constellation; there is no land-based equipment involved,” PHI Operations Director Pat Attaway said. “The system can fly the helicopter until its half a mile away from the rig and 200 feet above the water.”

At that point, the pilot can manually land the S-92 or stay coupled with Rig Approach, helping him land. Rig Approach automatically slows the S-92 down to about 35 mph. Most importantly, Doeppner said, Rig Approach positions the helicopter in the ideal place for an approach to the rig every time.

“When the pilot is manually flying the helicopter, it takes a lot of mental gymnastics to figure out the approach,” Doeppner said. “Rig Approach frees the pilot to concentrate on other details like weather and responding to radio crosstalk from the home base and the rig.”

Sikorsky said Rig Approach can fly in 120-degree heat and at 40 degrees below zero. PHI Gulf Coast pilot Lucas Bardsley has flown workers to Arctic oil rigs and looks forward to using Rig Approach in the frozen north.

“In the Arctic, ocean waves can be 40 feet high, and the rig’s landing pad is about 150 feet above the sea. So there’s little margin for error,” Bardsley said. “The GPS system is better than relying on signals from land-based systems. From the air, you can see exactly how remote the Arctic is and how little ground infrastructure exists.”

Like Doeppner, Bardsley sounds laconic and confident when describing white-knuckle, in-flight situations. But both pilots noted the oil and gas industry went through a sea-change in attitude, becoming far more safety conscious about 30 years ago.

Doeppner, who flew for 21 years in the Air Force before coming to Sikorsky, can remember when twin-engine planes tried to ferry workers to offshore rigs. And the Federal Aviation Administration began using technology that allowed it to track oil rig helicopters only two years ago.

They said they are delighted Rig Approach is making their jobs safer. But some nonpilots still cling to the vision of a helicopter pilot’s work as romantically dangerous. A National Science Foundation Antarctica helicopter Bardsley has flown is in the PHI hangar awaiting inspection.

When some schoolchildren spotted two antennas jutting from the helicopter, Bardsley said they were a bit disappointed to learn the metal tubes were not machine gun barrels he could use to battle pirates and James Bond-ish bad guys.