Release date: 17 September 2013
Timelapse: from dawn till dusk at Houma
The Houma-Terrebonne Airport sits around 80 kilometres (50 miles) southwest of New Orleans, Louisiana. Sandwiched between the Mississippi River to the north and the Gulf of Mexico to the south, it is an ideal location for the fleet of helicopters servicing BP’s offshore facilities.The airport, just three metres (10 feet) above sea level, is home to the BP Gulf of Mexico aviation logistics team, which keeps the offshore facilities supplied with people and cargo 365 days a year. Around 12,000 people travel through the Houma BP heliport every month. The helicopters are operated by contractor PHI. The group flies three types of aircraft, an 18-passenger Sikorsky S-92, a 12-passenger Sikorsky S-76, and a six-passenger Eurocopter EC 135.
The day-shift mechanics report for the start of their 12-hour shift. They have an extremely short commute to their jobs, since they live on airport property. During their seven-day tour, they stay in a small employee village of several mobile homes that are bunched at one end of the airport.
“Pre-flight time is a busy period. We get the aircraft ready to go,” says aviation mechanic Nathan Burrow.
The employees who work in the passenger terminal arrive for the day. This group staffs the check-in desks, the security gates and the ramp operations.
The terminal doors are still locked, but a few passengers are already waiting outside. Some have driven hundreds of kilometres, while others have flown to Louisiana the night before. The people who work the rigs and ships of the Gulf are at sea for an extended period. Some work tours of 28, 21, 14 or seven days, with a corresponding number of days off.
“They come from everywhere. Some from overseas, some from around the country, some are local,” says BP air operations supervisor Brian Verret. “Around 15-20% come from outside the US. They fly into New Orleans. We have British, Dutch, Norwegians, and Filipinos, along with many other nationalities.”
The doors open and around a dozen passengers walk in and start the check-in process.
“We have a computerised reservation system, just like an airline,” Verret says. “They come in, they show their ID. They get checked in. Their bags get weighed, they get weighed. We also look over their credentials for their safety training. Any credentials required for offshore work are also checked.”
After the check-in station, all those bound for the offshore facilities must go through security.
“Their bags are put through x-ray and then they go through the metal detector.”
Only seven minutes have passed since the doors opened and one of the passengers, Van Williams, has already been checked in, gone through security and is sitting quietly in the waiting room.
He left his home in Shubuta, Mississippi, at around 11:30pm and drove some 385 kilometres (240 miles) to the airport. Williams works for Seadrill and is bound for the semi-submersible drilling rig West Sirius – a 320-kilometre (200-mile) trip.
“The hardest thing is leaving home, leaving the family. It pays good money, but you miss a lot of birthdays and graduations and holidays,” says Williams, who has worked offshore for 38 years.
Jeff Stethem is waiting for a flight to take him to West Capricorn. This is his first day on the job and, while he has never worked offshore, he has spent plenty of time in helicopters. He was a flight paramedic and fire department captain in Hillsboro, Ohio, before joining Seadrill. “I am looking forward to this new life,” he says.
Stethem’s journey to Houma began around 1,450 kilometres (900 miles) away with a flight from Cincinnati. He spent the night in New Orleans and drove to Houma in the pre-dawn hours. “I will commute from Ohio, at least for a while.”
“Maybe in about year, probably we will move to Texas. That will cut down on the commute. We are in no big hurry.”
Stethem, who will work as a medic, underwent training for several weeks before being cleared for offshore work. “I have met some great people from all over the world,” he says.
The waiting room begins to fill as passengers sit and wait for their flights. Wall-mounted televisions are carrying morning news programmes, but only a few are watching. Most just sit and look at their cell phones, checking email for the last time before heading out. Although there is a strong aroma of fresh-brewed coffee in the room, not many are drinking as there are no lavatories on the helicopters.
Guy Fruge, also a paramedic, has been working offshore for 18 years and is waiting for the call for Thunder Horse, a BP-operated platform. “We do all the clinical care for the people on the platform and on the rare occasion that you actually have an injury,” Fruge says. “Most of what we do is clinical medicine, taking care of the colds and the illnesses.”
Fruge says two weeks is a long time to be away from home, but adds that it is balanced by having two weeks off.
“Well, you get a two-week vacation every month. You work six months out of the year. A lot of people say they can’t be away from home that long. I raised two kids working offshore. Yeah, you are gone that two-week span, but your quality of time at home for two weeks is greatly improved,” he says.
The first group of 14, bound for the Ocean Saratoga drilling rig, is called to the briefing room. These small rooms are filled with chairs and are the last stop before boarding. Prior to entering the rooms, the passengers are checked again to ensure they have proper identification. In the briefing room, they watch a safety video and then each one puts on a life jacket and lines up for departure.
The Ocean Saratoga passengers file out of the briefing room and walk onto the Tarmac towards their aircraft, which carries the call sign, BP-1. Each group leaving the building walks in single file, led by a helideck assistant (HDA).
The regulations and practices concerning activity around the helicopters are rigorously followed, says helicopter landing officer Corey Jenkins. “BP has a lot of rules for the passengers to make sure nobody gets hurt. And the HDAs make sure everybody is doing everything correctly,” he says.
Lines painted across the Tarmac lead from the terminal to each aircraft and each group walks in its assigned path. “There are reasons why the passengers only walk in designated areas. The pilots know to look for people there,” Jenkins says. “You approach the aircraft from a certain area and you depart from a certain side,” he says.
Another reason to approach the helicopter from the side, rather than the front, is that as the big rotors turn, they dip a little lower towards the ground at the front of the helicopter. The designated walking area is also free of trip hazards, such as tie-down rings and lighting fixtures.
The safety regulations also address other topics. Passengers are forbidden to have anything in their hands, such as cell phones, to avoid distractions, and Jenkins says BP wants everyone focused and paying attention when walking around helicopters. The prohibition also includes hats and other objects to prevent items from being blown into the air and then sucked into the jet engines.
“One of the leading causes of ground injuries around helicopters occurs when someone has something fly away from them. Your natural reaction is to go and grab it,” Jenkins says. “Well, when you run to grab it, you can run into something you did not know was there, and that can be a disaster."
minutes - the average one-way journey to offshore Gulf of Mexico
people per month travel through the heliport on their way to jobs offshore
miles offshore - the fartherst BP offshore facility, West Capricorn
The waiting room speaker announces those bound for Atlantis – another BP-operated platform - are to come to the check-in desk. The call then goes out for Thunder Horse.
Those bound for the DS-3 drilling rig are called to their briefing room.
The waiting room that was once almost full with around 100 people is now occupied by only around 15.
The sound of helicopter engines slowly grows as the rotors of an S-76 begin to turn. The helicopter holding five passengers lifts off and heads out to the drilling rig Ocean Saratoga, a trip of 175 kilometres (109 miles) and the shortest journey of the day.
BP-5 takes off for drilling rig Enterprise. Over the next 30 minutes, the roar of engines will be a constant, as seven other aircraft take off, including a flight of one hour and 55 minutes to West Capricorn, which is 360 kilometres (225 miles) away, and the longest one-way trip made on the day.
Pilot David Maples, who lives in Covington, Louisiana, is in the staff lounge waiting for a later flight. “It’s the best job in the world. We run almost like a scheduled airline. It is very well organised,” he says. “I can’t imagine an operation that runs smoother than this.”
Maples is piloting a Sikorsky S-92 and says they normally cruise at 1,525 metres (5,000 feet) at a speed of around 155 knots. “One of the prettiest things I have ever seen is the sunrise over the Gulf of Mexico. I try and not take it for granted. There are no buildings or smog; it’s a pristine sunrise,” he says.
Maples says there is a surprising amount of activity offshore, both man-made and natural. “Boats and helicopters, those are just the routine stuff. Sometimes, you see some crazy marine life. I have seen a whale right off the mouth of the Mississippi following a shrimp boat and I swear he was eating what was spilling out of the net.”
Passengers who will be leaving in the second wave of flights begin to arrive at the terminal and the check-in and security process begins again.
BP-3 arrives at the airport, the first aircraft to complete a round-trip.
BP-31 departs for the VK900A platform, some 196 kilometres (122 miles) away, on a pipeline maintenance mission. This is the last flight of the first wave of morning departures.
The waiting room begins to fill again, as the second-wave passengers wait for their flights. This group is a little more active than the first and several chat or grab a snack from one of the vending machines.
Jamie Savoie, is in the second wave and is one of the few workers who will not be spending an extended period of time at sea. He is a communications tech for Paratech and does not work a fixed tour but, instead, flies out for specific jobs.
“I love it. I can relate this kind of life to my Marine Corps experience, the structure, the leadership,” he says.
Savoie says that in addition to the structure, he also appreciates the code of ethics and the safety culture that is part of working offshore. “I attended some 60 training classes before I was even able to go out for BP. They are very strong on their safety.”
A lull between the waves of flights gives the staff a chance to relax a little and get ready for the next group of passengers.
Janine Caillouet started as an HDA, but last year became a counter clerk. “I am getting old, I don’t want to sling 50-pound bags anymore,” she says.
During the course of the next 30 minutes, seven helicopters take off in the second wave.
The blades of one of the helicopters come to a slow stop and eight passengers climb out. A few seconds later, they enter the baggage area and pick up their belongings. One of them is Matt Ogden of Hattiesburg, Mississippi. He still has a three-hour drive ahead of him and is anxious to get on the road.
“After 21 days, it is pure heaven when that helicopter lands on that Tarmac,” he says.
The mechanics start their afternoon maintenance while the aircraft are still parked on the flight line.
BP-8 lands, after flying 1,763 kilometres (1,096 miles) on the day’s operations – the most ground covered by any helicopter.
BP-2 was the first aircraft to take off in the morning and is now the last one to land, after flying 1,715 kilometres (1,066 miles), the equivalent of a round-trip between London and Bordeaux.
The fleet of 11 helicopters flew a total of 57 hours and 10 minutes and transported 597 people a distance of 14,477 kilometres (8,996 miles) on this day.
Mechanics begin washing each helicopter. They also pump water through the engines to rinse out any salt that was ingested through the air intake. This flushing helps prevent corrosion, explains Brian Verret.
The mechanics begin towing each helicopter into the hangars, where a nightly round of maintenance is performed, including any engine or transmission maintenance that is required.
The doors open and the day’s process starts all over again.