Jumpseating the North Sea PDF Print E-mail

I had the opportunity to get a ride in the jumpseat of a CHC Super Puma on a North Sea trip. This story is written by a person who at the time only was a pilot student and had no real knowledge of the offshore business, giving the impression what flying offshore is like.


Up at 04:20AM:

Lift-off was scheduled just before 07:00AM so due to the 30' tall snowdrifts the media had warned about the day before, it was better to get an early start from Billund. Of course there were no snowdrifts so I arrived at Esbjerg very, very early. Well, anyway, I got to see a Super Puma taking off in the dark.

There was no space on the first ride OY-HHC was going out on, as it was filled up and does not have the same payload as the other Puma's. So I waited, excited in the hope of an available space in one of the other 9 flights that day. And as it turned out, there were, yehaa - BIG smile.

One ticket issued and down I went to the departure hall to get the survival suit on and watch the safety video, and then next I made my way out to the Puma and the crew.

It requires a bit of flexibility to get in the jumpseat of a Puma in a survival suit without pulling, pushing and hitting your head on all the equipment. Not as easy as getting into the jumpseat of an airliner. With more/less troubles I got into the seat and when you sit there, there is actually a reasonable amount of space.

I was quickly briefed, that all the stuff is no-touch and other stuff was absolutely-no-touch and then the comment: “You have seen the Puma's cockpit before so you know the instruments, right” – “Ehh, bum bum, it has been a few years ago that I saw them last”.




Lift-off from EKEB:

With the passengers onboard the aircraft was started up, passengers briefed (without any steward show - damn) and taxied on the landinggear out for a SID P2A departure runway 08. This day it was decided that Captain was PF (Pilot Flying) and FO the non-PF. We went into hover and away we went - on autopilot. It felt like nothing going into hover. I have only flown R22 so far and trying to compare it with that it was like going into a nice calm hover with ideal 5-10kts. headwind with no gust on a sunny day. But today we had 45-50kts. indicated on the speedindicator in a hover during a smaller blizzard. I can not state if it was the Puma or pilot skills or a combination of both that made this a comfortable hover in this wind. Same scenario in a R22 and ... no, forget it.

We increased altitude to a couple of thousand feet over land and descended to 1000 ft. over the ocean due to a build-up of ice, that was monitored constantly and now the ocean was partially visible.



So when they say that they fly IFR on the North Sea , then they do fly IFR in IMC. The visibility was more/less the same as when the instructor at the pilot school in the FNPT simulator turns the screen into the lightgray color for IFR training. Get ready to monitor the instruments.

Paperwork was constantly being filled out by the non-PF, like fuelflow and who operated the radios among other things. A few instruments were adjusted for some changing courses and there was also time for some chit-chat with a few interruptions on the radio, either to EKEB, North Sea or the CHC office.




Fields in sight:

It was time for the arrival on the rigs and the passengers were briefed. The Captain put his gloves on again and we descended to 500 ft..

The weather radar was monitored as an aid to locate the rigs and possible ships along with the visual lookout in the somehow misty/foggy weather and when a rig was located, it was confirmed by a lowpass that the name written on it was right. The first rig we were to land on was Maersk Exceter.

Like the take-off, the landing was totally non-dramatic despite it was snowing and gusting pretty good. Everything went almost automatically and in a pretty good pace, everyone knew what to do, that included the pilots and the groundcrew on the rig. Doggybags with warm food, fruit, soda and cake was given to the crew in the cockpit and it ended on my lap and feet, there was no room elsewhere to put it.

Passengers had exited and shortly afterwards others came in and we were ready to take-off again for a short shuttle trip to another rig, Maersk Endevour.



About 4 minutes later we had landed on Maersk Endevour, a landing the FO who originally was non-PF that day took. Due to the wind direction, the approach was made in such a way that he had the best view of the rig for the approach.


Refueling on Maersk Endeavour:

Due to the refueling, all passengers had to disembark except the crew that included me (gosh, there I avoided another aerobatic stunt in getting out and in the jumpseat). A man stood ready with a firehose while the approx. 900 pound fuel was put in the tanks. Nice to know that safety is a priority. Refueling took about 10 minutes with the engines running, including getting the passengers onboard again.

A short briefing was given to the passengers and away it went with the noose going home. The Captain took off and when the course was set, the autopilot was engaged. Like the ride out, again dealing with paperwork, monitoring the instruments, some talk on the radio, monitoring of possible ice accumulation and time for some chit-chat. Then the fork and knife was taken out of the pocket and lunch was served. A strong eastern wind made the outgoing trip short, just 45 minutes, while returning to land took 1½ hours even cruising with 120kts..



Enroute back, an approach was chosen for EKEB, this time an ILS approach for runway 08 due to the weather conditions with full autopilot (4-axis). Autopilot on 100kts. on a 3 degrees slope gave us 500 ft. rate of descend (hey, speedfactor works). Shortly before threshold the Puma was handflown to the helipad instead, landed and taxied in where the groundcrew / mechanics stood ready. The engines were shut down and the passengers disembarked, including me.



Besides wanting the adventure itself of flying offshore in a helicopter, I also wanted to come along to get a firsthand impression of what offshore pilots do for a living. To confirm or not different assumptions.

I understand better now why the operators demand those hours and personal skills as they do with offshore pilots, that the test for becoming a FO is the same level as the test for becoming a Captain. Because it is a 2-pilot cockpit environment that just has to work, the Captain is not a flight instructor who will take over when you screw up. Despite you help each other in the cockpit and get 2+2=5, there is a lot of work you must be able to do on your own without doubts, especially if the Captain leaves the cockpit for a while on the helideck. It is of no use if the Captain on daily basis has to do the job of 3 people, his own, the FO's, and what he screws up.

I got the impression that flying offshore, the enroute part, on a daily basis is somehow a kind of busdriving experience. Except for the take-off, approach/landing and shuttling between the rigs, that will forever be real helicopter flying. I mean, all the enroute flying was on autopilot and that part of the flying does not seem to be much different compared to piloting an Airbus/Boeing. The difference is fortunately that the "busdriving part" is fairly short compared to an airliner’s 3-12 hours enroute flying.
The atmosphere in the cockpit was nice and informal. Sure the work is serious, but therefore you can still make jokes and fun because you are together in the cockpit for many hours. One even stated that you see your colleagues more than your wife.





My conclusion must be that flying offshore might on daily basis be a lot of routine work with a few different assignments of other kinds now and then. The weather is always changing and occasionally pretty hostile and despite this day had strong winds and a smaller blizzard, the relaxing words were that: “This is nothing. You should try to fly during nighttime with strong winds and gust, things failing in the helicopter and having to go to an alternate etc. etc., when everything goes wrong, then stuff happens”.

For example, the FO was working the previous night as a shuttle pilot between the rigs. 18 landings from early to late night in a blizzard. I bet that was interesting.

It is for the individual pilot and upcoming pilot to validate the work. Do you prioritize flying different types of assignments with helicopters where you might have to find those jobs away from your country, or do you prioritize the advantage flying out of the same base and thereby having the possibility to have a functional family life?

Personally, I think it would be a good idea for a new pilot, if so possible, to test his skills with some different types of operations and get some experience from different scenarios, before one becomes an offshore pilot. That, I assume, is a somehow different type of flying where at one moment everything seems to be just fine while eating lunch and the next moment everything is about to blow up. It seems to be more routine minded work due to the 2-pilot cockpit, the same base, and the same customers. But then again that is a total personal decision, many people have different preferences and maybe a family to consider as well.



Finally I would like to say thanks a lot to the two pilots, including the friendly personal at CHC and EKEB airport for a fun, exciting and informative day on the sea.

There are additional pictures in the gallery on this website under the "Aviation - flying" section and videos in the "Movies" section.