The offshore industry relies heavily on helicopters to transport workers, food supplies, and any essential items to and from oil rigs. Unfortunately, helicopter crashes are common and a leading cause of offshore accidents. We answered some common questions to provide insight into helicopter crashes in the offshore industry.
What Are the Major Causes of Helicopter Crashes in the Offshore Industry?
These are several common causes of helicopter crashes in the offshore industry:
Many helicopter crashes occur because of pilot error or a combination of pilot error and other factors. One of the most common causes of pilot error is poor decision-making. For example, a pilot decides to fly a helicopter in adverse weather conditions beyond the capability of the helicopter or misjudges the distance between the helicopter and an object, resulting in a collision.
Helicopter crashes can occur when vital parts such as engines or rotor systems malfunction. Also, the failure of the flotation device meant to keep the helicopter afloat after a crash can make the impact more severe.
Extreme Weather Conditions
Weather conditions can change rapidly offshore. Fog, severe storms, and high wind gusts can lead to malfunction or cause the pilot to lose visibility or control.
How Common Are Helicopter Crashes in Offshore Industries?
The Centers for Disease Control reports that between 2003 and 2010, transportation accidents caused 51% of offshore fatalities, and 75% were helicopter crashes.
According to a Helicopter Safety Performance report by HeliOffshore, from 2013 to 2018, there were 59 accidents, 28 fatal accidents, and 147 fatalities involving helicopters transporting passengers in the oil and gas industry.
Offshore helicopter crashes are common in the U.S.. Here are three examples from December 2022:
- A helicopter crashed into the Gulf of Mexico while attempting to land on an oil rig platform. Fortunately, there were no fatalities, as the U.S. Coast Guard was able to rescue the three people aboard the helicopter.
- A helicopter was disembarking passengers when strong winds tilted it to one side. The helicopter’s skids became stuck, resulting in an rollover that caused the helicopter to slide off the platform. The pilot activated the emergency floatation device on time, enabling all three persons on board to exit safely and remain in the water until rescued.
- There was a fatal helicopter crash near a Gulf of Mexico oil platform. The U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) reported that the crash caused the death of the pilot and three passengers.
How Do Weather Conditions Affect the Safety of Offshore Helicopter Flights?
Offshore helicopters operate in extreme weather environments that can significantly compromise the safety of pilots and passengers. In the past, technology provided limited information about offshore weather. Sometimes pilots had to turn around before reaching their destination because of bad weather. However, advanced technology has made offshore weather more predictable.
Extreme weather conditions can still affect helicopter flight safety in the following ways:
- Exposure to freezing conditions, especially at high humidity levels, can cause ice to form in or outside the helicopter. This can change how the equipment functions and create control problems.
- Fog and cloudiness can leave a pilot unable to see what’s around them. The reduced visibility can be serious enough to disorient the pilot and cause a crash.
- Storms and lightning strikes can damage parts of the helicopter, such as the rotor blades or flight aids, which can affect flight safety.
- Winds can make it more difficult for pilots to control the helicopter’s direction. Extreme winds can be a lot more dangerous.
Who Regulates Offshore Helicopter Operations in the U.S.?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement (BSEE) are the major bodies regulating the operation of offshore helicopters.
The Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC) also plays a role. The HSAC was established in January 1978 in response to a tragic incident resulting in the loss of 19 lives when a helicopter collided with a platform crane. The goal of the HSAC is to identify and resolve critical safety issues affecting operations in the Gulf of Mexico. It has recommended practices to promote the safe operation of offshore helicopters.
What Safety Measures Can Reduce Fatalities From Helicopter Crashes?
Several measures can increase the survival rate of persons involved in offshore helicopter crashes, including:
- Using floats that help keep the helicopter above water long enough after a crash to allow passengers and crew to escape
- Having automatic floats that do not require manual activation and can deploy when they sense water immersion
- Providing life rafts and life jackets to increase survivability after leaving the helicopter
- Using standard, bright colors and contrasting stripes to make it easier to spot aircraft and passengers during search and rescue
- Providing emergency breathing systems that can supply oxygen to helicopter crash survivors to enable them to survive longer in the water while waiting to be rescued
What Types of Injuries Occur After an Offshore Helicopter Crash?
A report broke down the type of injuries victims of offshore helicopter crashes in the Gulf of Mexico suffered. The report analyzed 35 autopsies and 568 documented injuries to arrive at the following findings:
- 23.4% of injuries affected the lower parts of the body, 22.0% affected the thorax, 13.6% affected the upper parts of the body, and 13.4% were facial injuries.
- Minor injuries occurred mostly in the face, abdomen, neck, and upper and lower extremities.
- Serious or worse injuries affected mostly the thorax (53.6%), head (41.7%), spine (50.0%), and other regions (75.0%).
- The most frequent injuries were ones to the thoracic organ (23.0%), thoracic skeletal (13.3%), abdominal organ (9.6%), and legs (7.4%).
- Drowning was involved with 37.1% of victims. Drowning victims had a higher rate of moderate brain injuries (7.8%) compared with non-drowning victims (2.9%).
Centers for Disease Control: Fatal Injuries in Offshore Oil and Gas Operations — United States, 2003–2010
HeliOffshore: Helicopter Safety Performance 2013-2018
Offshore Engineer: NTSB Releases Preliminary Report on Offshore Platform Helicopter Crash
FAA.org: ENR 6.2 Special Operations