I reread this, and how prescient it was in its view that rebreathers were a step too far. I did have to be trained to use one, but when in the helicopter escape I just held my breath like I had done every time before. Today (in 2016) the helicopter crashes in the interval between this being written in 1993 and today have resulted in passengers being provided with small compressed air devices, and the seating being limited to the requirement for each passenger to be provided with an immediate means of egress in the event of an accident ? a wimdow or a door. Also Patrick Allen, who used to appear in the flight info video, died in 2006. And finally health and safety have found that the training process was too stressful and so it is now a lot more restful.


There is a proposal now being tabled by one of the oil majors that North Sea helicopter passengers be issued with a re-breathing device to give them extra time to evacuate from helicopters underwater. The device itself is simple but effective, and increases the underwater capability of  helicopter passengers from a potential 30 seconds to about four minutes. On the face of things this would appear to be an excellent idea and might possibly save some-one's life if for no other reason than by reducing the panic which most people feel at being unable to breath God's fresh air, whether they are likely to be able to shortly or not. However this proposal is raising the thought in the minds of those involved with the physical operation of helicopters, rather than their theoretical safety, that perhaps the paths being taken to reduce risk are beginning to have adverse effects on their personnel.

Firstly there is the possibility that the time spent in donning the device will lose valuable evacuation time, and that failure operate it correctly might produce even greater panic than it's not being available in the first place. This line of thinking is parallel to that of the CAA on the question of the use of smoke helmets in civilian aircraft. Their official line, after due investigation, is that the time spent putting on the smoke helmet would lose passengers essential seconds during the evacuation. This argument is countered by the survivors of the Manchester air crash who claim that smoke helmets would have saved many lives in that disaster.

Secondly there is an increasing feeling that North Sea helicopter passengers are being faced with increasing emotional trauma at the possibility of going in a helicopter at all. Training has now reached an extraordinarily high level for what remains an outside chance of a disaster. And though memory seems to indicate otherwise, since every North Sea helicopter disaster is so well remembered, figures are available which prove that helicopter flights are now safer than flights on turbo-prop aircraft. Logic now dictates that the latter form of transport requires more attention. It must be said that if potential passengers had to undergo a couple of parachute jumps before the annual outing to the Costa Brava the Germans would probably not have too much competition for the deck chairs.

Attitudes may be framed as much by the level of responsibility as any other factor. In the offshore industry the employer contracts with the carrier to transport the passengers to their area of employment in much the same way as the few remaining miners are transported to their place of work by the mine cages. In the civilian aircraft industry the carrier transports a multitude of passengers for many different customers many travelling privately, from a multi-user embarkation point to a similar disembarkation point. While the philosophy  of passenger safety naturally remains the same, the responsibility is different, and the legislative pressures rest heavily on the oil companies the ensure that their employees travel and work as safely as may be reasonably possible.

Back in the 1970s during the development of the Brent Field it was not logistically possible to transfer the workforce by passenger helicopter from Aberdeen, so Sumburgh Airport in the Shetlands became a busy transfer point, and a number of schemes were developed, two proposing the use of  what would have been civilian aircraft carriers, with short take-off and landing aircraft ferrying passengers from Aberdeen to the North. Had such a means of transfer been developed one wonders how the operators would have proceeded with survival training. Parachute jumps would certainly not have been totally out of the frame. Incidentally the problem was solved by adding a helideck to a North Sea ferry and subjecting  the workforce to a 24 hour sea trip prior to the helicopter transfer.

Safe working practices have developed in the North Sea from a combination of experience, logic and legislation, and these have incorporated the safety training which takes place at all levels and the safety equipment which is supplied.

Prior to travelling to an offshore installation any potential worker must first undertake a basic survival course, which has within it various elements which are required by the Offshore Petroleum Industry Training Organisation. Many of these elements relate directly to the helicopter passage from the mainland, most of which takes place over the sea. Logic has dictated that since the sea is cold it must be necessary for any survivor to have been provided with some sort of  special clothing, and hence the survival suit.

While not suggesting for a moment that the survival suit is not a good idea, using the same logic it should be necessary for North Sea ferries to be provided with a full compliment of survival suits, and in the more luxurious environment of the Arctic, Antarctic and Alaskan cruises would seem to be and essential luxury accessory. It may be worth bearing in mind that the operators of these cruises would probably be only too pleased to provide such equipment, but to admit to their existence, and to require training in their use would seem to indicate a certain lack of confidence in their own ships and personnel,  and would probably result in few passengers willing to take the very small risk that the ship might sink.

Survival suits are complex garments, so the survival course teaches the wearers how to put them on and how to ensure that they will do the most good. To instil the wearers with confidence the suits are worn in simulated North Sea environments which consist of large tanks in windowless buildings. At RGIT in Aberdeen students find themselves floating in total darkness apart from occasional lightening flashes, being buffeted by waves in force ten winds and being deluged by monsoon rains. Instructors at Lowestoft College whose Environmental tank was opened last October are lobbying the organisation for daily deliveries of ice to reduce the water temperature to something like the real thing.

All helicopters are provided with flotation equipment so that if they ditch they will float upright and in most cases of controlled ditching this has proved to the case. Never-the-less the OPITO syllabus requires that the trainees experience a helicopter inversion, and make an escape, through a suitable orifice. At Warsash the trainees have the privilege of experiencing the Naval Helicopter dunker at HMS Heron, Yeovil, and take their turn in terror with Naval and RAF pilots. They are upturned in a helicopter body and descend to a depth of five metres before leaving in supposedly good order through one of the windows.

At the Petans Fireground on the edge of Norwich airport, which is now claimed to be the major training area for advanced offshore fire fighting the students on the basic survival course having the opportunity of seeing simulated helicopter bodies realistically positioned on top of fabricated helidecks and tumbled and broken in fire-blackened states, on the decks of parts of oil rigs, awaiting their part in the training of HLOs and fire crews. Even though no such accident has occurred in the North Sea anyone preparing to go offshore for the first time might well get the impression that such incidents occurred every week.

These remarks are restricted to North Sea activities. Elsewhere in the world, where paradoxically no form of survival courses are required and a distinctly limited level of equipment is available, it is a more frequent occurrence for helicopters to crash, and most oil men who have worked offshore in the third world return home with tales of  having seen an ageing paraffin budgie descend into the sea, often with the loss of all hands.

It is possible therefore that somewhere within the offshore training syllabus and on the offshore videos there should be some sort of a disclaimer similar to the ones seen on the BBC television's "Crimewatch UK", which after portraying numbers of violent and unpleasant incidents tells viewers to remember that they have collected a number of isolated incidents and that in reality the chances of something unpleasant happening to anyone are extremely slim. On the other hand, should the use of the rebreathing device become mandatory, offshore workers will at least have the pleasure of seeing the survival suit video star Patrick Allen attempting to look charismatic with a plastic hood over his head and a tube sticking out of the corner of his mouth.

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