Offshore helicopter approaches and landings are some of the most unique and challenging maneuvers out there.
The versatility of helicopters naturally makes them suited for a wide variety of unusual and, at times, uniquely hazardous operations. In particular, helicopters provide special advantages to offshore operations, and their flexible landing capabilities afford them unique approach types in the form of OSAPs, HEDAs, and ARAs to perform such operations as needed. But with this flexibility comes greater pilot responsibility.
Into the wind
One of the many unique risks is the changing landing environment. For example, you must plan an OSAP with a 7nm fix downwind of the destination with no obstacles present within 0.5nm of the final approach course. As an offshore operation, this fix may need to be determined on the fly to account for changing winds or new obstacles, such as a ship that moved into the area. Quick thinking and keen observation of your surroundings will be required for every approach, both to identify obstacles and, ultimately, to scan for and confirm the landing zone.
Then there's the persistent problem of weather, which is notoriously unpredictable and harsh in offshore areas. Winds may shift often over the course of a single flight, necessitating changing approaches between trips to the same location. Heavy precipitation giving way to icing in the colder months of the year may affect visibility (rendering the helipad or landing platform invisible, even when near at hand) and flight performance. When combined with heavy winds, there may be days where you will need to make a no-go decision--admittedly a difficult call in such a demanding environment.
Other times, flight may still be within acceptable risk levels, but individual approaches may be questionable. As we spoke about earlier this week, go-arounds should never be thought of as absolute last resorts, but rather as a useful tool during moments of uncertainty. When time is of the essence and you've performed the maneuver a hundred times before, it's all too easy to push through hazardous conditions to complete a risky landing. Don't get caught up in this myopic attitude, utilize the go-around when it’s the appropriate tool for the conditions.
All this would be plenty for a crew to handle on a good day, but the reality of offshore helicopter operations is that they often take place at odd hours, such as late at night or early morning. Furthermore, the reality is that pilots often perform multiple takeoffs and landings repeatedly, all within a short span. Quite often you'll spend more time in critical phases of flight than not, leaving little breathing room to review what improvements need to be made or plan for changes. And while the repetitive nature of the approaches may seem like an advantage, it leaves the door open for complacency to settle in.
Offshore helicopter operations require an increased dedication to cockpit resource management above and beyond the norm, as well as dedicated planning and crew coordination. Always begin and end each mission with a detailed briefing, and encourage an open environment in the cockpit for questions and concerns to be discussed and dealt with. Ensure SOPs are followed and always insist on taking any necessary measures to ensure crew safety.
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