Dangers of Offshore Work

Slack Davis Sanger aviation attorney Ladd Sanger comments about recent helicopter crash in the Houma Courier (Louisiana)

Reporter: Robert Zullo
HOUMA – For local riggers, engineers, roustabouts and other offshore laborers, it’s a ride to work.

But most commuters don’t board a multi-million-dollar machine and cross up to 100 miles of open water at dizzying heights to reach the office.

As government and company investigators continue picking through the wreckage of a helicopter that crashed in western Terrebonne Parish last week, killing eight men and injuring another, the crash serves as a sobering reminder of a danger that can come from extracting oil and gas from below the Gulf of Mexico’s depths.

“It saddens you,” said Louisiana Oil and Gas Association President Don Briggs, who worked in the oil industry for 28 years before founding the association in 1992. “We’re a close industry. It’s not huge. So you wonder if it’s one of your friends, somebody you know. You feel like one of your comrades has fallen, actually. It’s like a fraternity.”

The Sikorsky S-76C++, owned by Lafayette-based Petroleum Helicopters Inc., took off from Amelia just after 2 p.m. last Sunday bound for a Shell Oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico. The helicopter crashed about seven minutes later in a marshy area near Bayou Penchant, authorities said.

Industry Fallout
Even before a preliminary report is issued by the National Transportation Safety Board, which is investigating the crash, the fallout has stretched across the helicopter and offshore industries, creating a confluence of lawyers, so-called independent crash experts and consultants and grieving families.

One lawsuit has already been filed, by the estranged wife of one of the workers killed, alleging negligence against PHI.

More suits may follow, but the demands of the nation’s energy industry and the wages the oilfield jobs command means the crash won’t keep many workers from boarding their next offshore flight, according to 75-year-old Forrest Callais. He’s a retired oilfield consultant from Houma who spent 50 years in the industry, many of them as a roughneck.

“I really feel for those people; I really do. But that’s why they get paid a lot of money,” Callais said. “You can work 40 hours a week on land and make a living. But if you want to make a good living, you go offshore.”

Asked what goes through the mind of an offshore worker when a helicopter traveling to or from a rig crashes, Callais said most commiserate, then get back to work.

“What do you think about when an airplane crashes?” Callais said. “It’s a terrible thing, but does it stop you from doing what you got to do?”

“Going to Work”
Helicopters have played a major role in transporting workers and equipment to offshore platforms for the past 40 years. As technology gains allowed rigs and platforms to move into deeper water, the economic advantages of transporting workers and equipment by air instead of by ship became increasingly apparent.

As in any business, time is money.

In the early days, most of the platforms were within range of boat transportation, Briggs said.

“As we got further out in the Gulf of Mexico, transportation had to change,” he said.

More than 600 helicopters in the Gulf of Mexico offshore fleet made almost 1.3 million flights, carried almost 3 million passengers and logged almost 411,000 flight hours last year, according to data compiled by the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference from 15 helicopter operators in the region.

That year, there were about 4,000 operational production platforms in the Gulf’s Outer Continental Shelf, which stretches from western Texas to southwest Florida.

Some rigs and platforms are more than 100 miles offshore, and workers are often ferried from one platform to another, making helicopter transportation crucial.

“Today, we have so many specialists that have to go to and from rigs,” Briggs said. “It’s just a very, very important part of the industry.”

Accompanying the speed and convenience of helicopter transportation is the risk of a crash, Callais said.

“It’s just like taking a car outside and going to work except one’s a little more dangerous than another,” Callais said.

On March 23, 2004, a Sikorsky S-76 owned by Era Aviation Inc. crashed into the Gulf off the Texas coast at night, killing 23-year-old Tyler Breaux of Houma and nine other people.

The NTSB report that followed says that between 2000 and 2004, the Gulf fleet had a fatal accident rate higher on average than the nationwide rate for similar aircraft per 100,000 flight hours.

The flights compared were those of commuter and “on-demand” operations.

Callais, however, said he has never been afraid of flying.

“People say it’s dangerous,” Callais said. “I rode them almost every day. … I’ve had some friends that’s been on them that refused to get back on them.”

Briggs lost one of his best friends in a helicopter crash about 30 years ago but stands by the safety records of companies serving the oil-and-gas industry.

“I don’t question our helicopter people,” he said Friday. “PHI is one of the finest organizations there is around. … It wouldn’t bother me to get on a helicopter this afternoon.”

A Worldwide Venture
PHI describes itself as one of the largest commercial helicopter companies in the world, operating in North America and in several foreign countries, including Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The company’s oil-and-gas sector operates 152 aircraft that primarily ferry personnel and equipment to offshore platforms in the Gulf of Mexico and off the west coast of Africa, according to a September quarterly report on the PHI Web site.

PHI also operates 88 emergency medical aircraft in 17 states.

In the past 10 years, 30 people have been killed in 12 crashes and accidents involving PHI helicopters in the U.S., including last week’s crash in Terrebonne, according to NTSB data. Eight of those happened on a trip to or from an offshore platform in the Gulf.

Still, the company boasts an accident rate “far below the national average.” Over the past 10 years, the company’s pilots flew for the equivalent of more than two years and more than 550,000 flight hours accident free, “an accomplishment unsurpassed in the helicopter industry,” the company’s Web site states.

Dallas attorney Ladd Sanger, an aviation law specialist and helicopter pilot, has studied several crashes involving PHI helicopters and questions some of the company’s practices.

He represents the family of a flight nurse killed in June when a PHI medical helicopter crashed near Huntsville, Texas. The pilot, flight paramedic and one passenger were also killed.

The NTSB has yet to issue a final determination on the cause of the Texas crash, but Sanger said evidence indicates the crew took off despite obviously unfavorable weather. Sanger’s clients have not yet sued, he said.

“Clearly there are safety issues,” Sanger said. “It appears to me based on the accident history of PHI that there is an institutional philosophy to press weather and fly helicopters in conditions where they shouldn’t be dispatched.”

However, it’s unknown if weather conditions played a role in last week’s Terrebonne crash.

According to the NTSB, there were scattered clouds at 1,000 feet and 10 miles visibility at the time of the crash. The weather was described as “visual flight-rule conditions,” meaning the skies met or exceeded the threshold for safe non-instrument flying.

Under such conditions, with a pilot and copilot, the high-tech, twin-engine Sikorsky shouldn’t just fall out of the sky, Sanger said.

“I would say it was unusual. It shouldn’t happen,” he said. “You certainly would have to look at mechanical issues. And you certainly have to look at the procedures PHI is following.”

The Risk
Losing a spouse or family member suddenly in a crash is trauma that is never entirely erased, said Cherie Cunningham, a cousin of Tyler Breaux.

Last week’s crash triggered a wave of memories, and Cunningham worried about how the news would affect her aunt, Breaux’s mother.

“You never get over something like that when it happens in your immediate family,” said Cunningham, whose 34-year-old husband of 10 years, Drew, works offshore for Performance Energy Services.

Though he mostly travels by boat these days, her husband has been on helicopters “thousands of times,” Cunningham said.

“It’s a risk you take with the job,” she said, adding that she worries about her husband’s entire stints offshore, not just the flights. “I worry about him everyday when he’s offshore because the job is dangerous.”

Like many families with relatives and friends working offshore, news of a crash evokes one main reaction.

“You’re praying it’s not somebody you know,” she said.

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