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Subject: A New Pilots Guide to the Gulf of Mexico
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JH Guru
JH Guru

03/24/2013 2:46 PM  
Hey guys and gals, I wrote a rather lengthy paper when finishing my degree. I know I am setting myself up for criticism, but if this helps just one guy it's worth all the potential crap I get. Keep in mind this is geared toward new light ship pilots.

  ­­­A New Pilots Guide to Gulf of Mexico Flight Operations


By: Keith Sano





Submitted for fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of

Bachelors of Science in Aviation Science

Utah Valley University




The Final Term Research Project of

A New Pilots Guide to Gulf of Mexico Flight Operations

is approved by:










(Instructor Name)

Aviation Science




Utah Valley University




I.                    Title Page                                                                                                  1         

II.                 Department Approval                                                                              2

III.               Table of Contents                                                                                     3

IV.              Abstract                                                                                                    4

V.                 Chapter 1                                                                                                  5

A.     An Introduction to the Oilfield                                                                        5                     

VI.              Chapter 2                                                                                                  10

A.     Helicopter Companies                                                                         10

VII.            Chapter 3                                                                                                  14

A.     Application and Interview                                                                   14       

VIII.         Chapter 4                                                                                                  16

A.     Flying Offshore                                                                                               16       

IX.              Conclusion                                                                                                            23

X.                 References                                                                                                            25








For many helicopter pilots, flying in the Gulf of Mexico (GOM) is their first “real job”. After years of training and accumulating the requisite flight hours through flight instruction, tours and various other jobs, many pilots are enticed by the various aircraft, stability and income that the Gulf has to offer. The Gulf of Mexico presents a wealth of opportunities for new helicopter pilots. While the pros are many, so are the cons. The oppressive heat and humidity, time away from home and family, difficult customers, substandard living quarters and remote locations are but a few of the common complaints. Often little is known about the unique work conditions present in the GOM prior to employment. Unfortunately, after witnessing these conditions, many new pilots are dissatisfied and seek employment elsewhere. The relatively high new pilot turnaround rate has been cause for concern to some helicopter companies. I believe that this dissatisfaction is due to a lack of information prior to employment. It is my hope that this paper will provide the necessary information for new pilots to make an educated decision before applying for a position in the Gulf and make new pilots aware of unique hazards found offshore. By informing pilots of the lifestyle and safety hazards found in the GOM, the number of accidents, incidents and turnarounds can be reduced.








            His heavy eyelids open to “Reveille” being played on his cell phone alarm. It is four thirty in the morning. Mumbling an expletive, he presses snooze, almost without thinking. Five minutes later, the horns blare out the sound that has aroused soldiers for generations. Another alarm, strategically placed across his room, fills the darkness with the world’s most annoying sound, an electronic “Ehhh, Ehhh, Ehhh”. Now he has to get up. He grunts and tosses off his covers, “Six more wake-ups til break day.”


Chapter 1

An Introduction to the Oil Field

            In the 1930s America was plagued by poor economic times. Though the Great Depression was beginning to weaken, it took a World War to pull us out of it. Prior to the war, demand for fossil fuels was low. This made oil drilling and production a high risk, low reward venture. With millions of troops off fighting America’s enemies, the production of resources at home led to a spike in jobs and opportunity. The life blood of the modern, mechanized military was, and still is, oil and fuel. With surging demand and prices, companies set to the task of keeping America’s military and industry running. (Austin, 2004)

            In 1947, Kerr McGee and Phillips Petroleum led a consortium of companies in completing the first offshore oil production platform not in sight of land. Located just eleven miles off the coast of Louisiana, this platform sent a clear signal; the Gulf of Mexico was ripe for harvest. (Harvard Business Library, 2012)

            With the increasing desire for fuel and low prices, the number of production platforms that have been built in the offshore waters of the Gulf region exploded to nearly 5600.  At present the number of production structures has decreased to less than 4000. With wells being depleted and advancing technologies such as directional drilling and sub-sea wells, older platforms are constantly being decommissioned and removed. (Pulsipher, 2001)  


            Harvesting oil and gas has changed significantly with modern technology. With the introduction of the kerosene lamp in the 1850’s, a demand for petroleum fuel in America began. In Pennsylvania, Edwin Drake drilled the first commercially successful oil well to a depth of 69 feet in 1859 to meet consumers’ need for light and lubrication. (Mintz, 2007)

A well is created with a rotary drill. Various bits attached to steel pipe bore through the earth’s crust. Drilling fluid, known as mud, is specially formulated and pumped through the drill pipe. Mud plays a vital role in the drilling process. It cools the bit, pushes cuttings to the surface and stabilizes the bore hole, preventing water and other fluids and debris from entering. Once the desired depth is reached, the drill pipe is pulled and replaced with a permanent steel casing. The casing is then perforated with small holes at the production depth, or if the reservoir section is left uncased, sand screens or a gravel pack is placed in the uncased section to prevent debris infiltration. The well is then capped with what is called a Christmas tree. A Christmas tree often has a blow-out preventer and an assembly of control valves, where flow rates are controlled and diverted to a sub-sea pipeline. There are multiple pipelines on the floor of the Gulf of Mexico, with many wells connecting to large pipelines. Petroleum products and gas are then pumped to refining facilities located throughout the Gulf coast. After the well is drilled, a production platform is placed or built around the new well. From here, operators can monitor flow, inject chemicals, etc.

It is important to know the difference between a rig and a platform. New pilots are often recognized by their lack of this knowledge. For the most part, drill rigs are mobile and move from job to job, contracted by various oil companies to simply drill a hole. Once it is capped, they move on and the permanent platform is built. Drill rigs are best recognized by their large derricks. There are four common types of drilling units offshore.

 In shallow water, jack-up rigs are common. While being moved these structures are easily identified by three large legs that are raised up to 500 feet in the air. The rig itself is similar to a barge, able to float on water. Tug boats are used to move these large structures. Once they reach the specified location, they lower their legs to the sea floor. The drill deck is elevated above the water so waves and tides will not move the rig.  

Also used in shallow waters are submersible drilling rigs. Submersible rigs are also known as a mobile offshore drilling unit, or MODU. This rig has large pontoons located 100 feet or more below the rig deck. These pontoons are flooded with water and allowed to sink to the sea floor when drilling. Once it is time to relocate, the water is pumped from the pontoons, allowing the structure to float and be towed.

Similar to submersible, the semi-submersible rig is capable of drilling in deep water. Instead of flooding the pontoons to rest on the sea floor, semi-submersible pontoons are flooded enough to remain buoyant and elevate the drill deck a hundred feet or more above the sea for wave and tide clearance. The rig is then anchored to the sea floor with six to twelve anchors. These anchor cables are computer controlled to maintain stability while drilling. In addition to drilling, these versatile structures can be outfitted for production or work-over operations such as well repair and construction. (Schlumberger, 2012)

In 1997, the Neptune was the first spar design rig used for deep water operations in the Gulf. A spar looks like a cylindrical cork, floating in the water. Once anchored, the spar can be used for both drilling and as a production facility; these floating platforms can also be used for storage operations. With the majority of its mass underwater, similar to an iceberg, increased stability is achieved. (Rigzone, 2012)

Drill ships are also used in deep water. Using anchors or hull mounted dynamic positioning system they are able to maintain position while drilling. These large vessels have an advantage in mobility and in being fully independent. (Noble, 2012)

Platforms are the most common structures in the Gulf. With the exception of deep water, they are supported by legs sitting on the sea floor. The majority of flights are to support oil platforms. These structures vary greatly in size, the smallest being referred to as a toadstool. These are recognized by a single pylon extending above the water with a small operation deck and a small heli-deck on top. These heli-decks are often 20-27 feet square with a weight capacity of 5000-7000 pounds. With various sizes in-between, there are also very large structures, capable of housing hundreds of workers and accommodating even the largest helicopters.

Life offshore is not for everyone. On some platforms, very small living quarters can only house two operators. An 8x25ft building may be home for up to two weeks. With enough room for only two office chairs, the kitchen, work desk/kitchen table and TV lounge are all combined in a space smaller than many homes walk-in closets. A small bathroom/laundry and bunk beds fill the remaining space. Having a good working relationship with your partner is essential.

Larger platforms are often equipped with multiple floors or buildings. Full time cooks, theater seating and big screen TVs, internet access, laundry and cleaning service often make life offshore more tolerable. Most manned platforms are somewhere in between. They have a galley, TV area with chairs and couches, bathrooms, laundry facilities, offices and a few bedrooms. Bunk beds are common as they provide an overflow for third party contractors or construction crews.

Operators typically work for seven or fourteen days, then are off for the same amount of time. Work days are twelve hours long, provided everything is operating smoothly. The majorities of oil workers lives in southern Louisiana and often are referred to as Coon-asses. While the terms origin is debated, this seemingly derogatory word is embraced by many in the southern, French-rooted culture as a source of pride. In fact, until 1992, years after the Louisiana Legislature condemned the word, the Louisiana Air National Guard’s 159th Tactical Fighter Group called itself the Coon-ass Militia. (Thibodeaux, 2001) Coon-asses are known for their funny accents and their distinct, and delicious, food. Gumbo, etouffee, boudin and dirty rice are but a few of the delicious dishes commonly prepared offshore.



He walks the short distance from his assigned housing trailer to the hanger. His shirt is already wet from sweat. 98 percent humidity and 80 degrees feel like a weight on his shoulders. The sun won’t be up for over an hour. He wasn’t looking forward to the August afternoon. The evening news mentioned thunderstorms forecasted for later in the day. He knew the showers would bring no relief from the heat as they do up north, where he lives. “Five more days.” he grumbles.


Chapter 2

Helicopter Companies

Helicopters play a vital role in the Gulf of Mexico. They provide rapid transportation of personnel, parts, emergency evacuations, even groceries in some cases. With a few exceptions, oil companies do not want to maintain a fleet of their own helicopters. The initial costs, liability and expertise required are simply not worth it. Therefore, helicopter companies are established and contracted with various oil companies to provide the helicopters, pilots, maintenance, facilities, etc. required to serve the customer’s needs.  Helicopter companies are part of the service industry; they exist to serve their customers. It is imperative that pilots recognize this relationship and have a positive attitude and willingness to serve the customer in a safe and professional manner.

Not all helicopter companies are created equal. A company’s reputation can be very positive or damagingly negative. The greatest influences on a company’s reputation are accidents and incidents. As in every other aspect of life, you get what you pay for. It is important for new pilots interested in applying for a job in the Gulf to know the reputations of the various companies. Wise pilots often seek out the company with the best reputation for aircraft maintenance. Online forums and other pilots can offer advice on this, albeit biased.

As of 2012, there are four major helicopter companies operating in the Gulf of Mexico; PHI, Bristow (formerly Air Logistics), Era, and Rotorcraft Leasing. In addition to these companies there are many small operators throughout the gulf coast and may have as little as one or two helicopters. The largest companies have hundreds of helicopters. Contracts are gained through a bidding process. For example, a small oil company may only own a few offshore platforms and require a small helicopter to service these structures. They then contact the various helicopter companies and receive bids for this service. They then select the company of their choosing based on the company’s reputation and cost. Often the contracts last a year or more and the price includes a monthly flat rate plus a per flight hour rate. Helicopter companies also conduct many ad hoc jobs. These one-time flights are referred to as “specials.”

Since there are many customers with different needs, various types of helicopters are used. These aircraft are grouped in three different categories; small, medium and heavy. Small ships, limited to VFR operations, comprise the majority of helicopters found offshore. They are often used to transport 1-6 people. They include the Bell models 206B, 206L3, 206L4, and 407. In addition the AW119, AS350, EC120 and EC135 are commonly used. The Bell 206 L3 and 407 are the most common small ships found offshore. These are often the first aircraft new pilots fly.

Medium ships are used for transporting larger amounts of personnel, up to 15 people. They often have the ability to perform IFR operations and can service platforms located further offshore. These include the Sikorsky S76A++, C+, C++, AW139, and Bell 412. Medium aircraft operated under IFR require two pilots. Many pilots advance their careers by flying as first officers on these medium aircraft, learning the skills necessary and building experience to become an IFR Captain.

As oil and gas reserves are discovered and tapped further off the coast, heavy, IFR capable, aircraft are being used to provide their transportation needs. The Sikorsky S61 and newer S92 can haul 18 passengers at a time to distant locations offshore.

 With the dozens of airframes used in the Gulf, new pilots have access to many opportunities for advancing their careers. It is prudent for a new pilot to know their long term career goals and aspirations. This will establish a career path that can be focused on. It is important to know that once a path has been started, it may be difficult to change direction. Some of the large helicopter companies have International and EMS divisions in addition to offshore oil and gas operations. This may allow for pilots to try different jobs and stay with the same company. One must be careful though. For example, if a pilot has long term goals of flying EMS in a small ship, it may be unwise to apply for positions in the medium and heavy IFR aircraft. From a helicopter company’s standpoint, it costs tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars to train pilots in complex, IFR aircraft. It is often frowned upon, if not outright rejected, for a heavy ship IFR pilot to go to VFR light ships. It is simply not cost effective.

In order to serve their customers, helicopter companies often have multiple base locations. A main base serves as a training facility, corporate headquarters and maintenance facility able to handle more complex jobs, while smaller, remote bases serve as passenger hubs. These satellite bases may be no more than an assembly of trailers. They will have maintenance facilities, offices and passenger waiting areas, and a pilot flight planning area. Pilot and support staff housing trailers may be located near the base or in apartments nearby. The locations and sizes of these bases are often reflective of the number of contracted aircraft.

Base living conditions onshore can vary from an old single-wide trailer for you to share with four people to your own luxurious apartment. It would behoove new pilots to not expect much in the way of housing while on duty. With lowered expectations, pilots may be pleasantly surprised with a decent apartment or clean, new trailer. But with housing conditions being a major complaint around the pilot lounge, one should expect less than ideal conditions. Having a positive attitude and making friends will make the time away from home more tolerable, if not enjoyable.  

At minimum, a pilot can expect their own room. Some companies provide a sink and perhaps a TV in each room as well. A shared kitchen, living room and often bathrooms can be expected. Wireless internet and cable or satellite TV is also available in most, if not all, locations.

Food can be interesting. Some bases are so remote that coolers are required to pack in groceries; others are within walking distance to multiple supermarkets. Many locations have few if any restaurants. Often, pilots sharing quarters will take turns cooking for each other, making for a less chaotic kitchen around meal times. It is important to note that your job may require you to spend night at various bases or offshore throughout your work hitch. Buying seven or fourteen days’ worth of food at once may be unwise.

Crew change day, he stands in the flight planning room muttering to himself, “Outbound load is 1450 pounds, four overweight platform operators and enough baggage to make a Hollywood diva proud. That leaves only 400 pounds of fuel I can take, only an hour and five minutes of flight time. Minus the required thirty minutes reserve fuel, I have only thirty-five minutes of fuel available. The platform is 65 miles away, about a half hour. 30 knot headwind. Close, maybe… nope, that’s dumb, can’t do it. Got to drop a person, they aren’t going to like to hear this. Unless… I can offload fuel and get gas on the way out. Where? West Cam 167. I’ll have to shut down and sump the tank. Ugh. Four more days of this crap”


Chapter 3

Application and Interview

Prior to applying for a position with a Gulf helicopter company, it is important to prepare a professional resume and ensure that flight logbooks and records are accurate and in order. Additionally, it would be in a new applicant’s best interest to acquire at least 100 hours of night flying experience and an ATP rating, if possible. Since aircraft generally do not fly offshore at night, it is extremely difficult to obtain the requisite night flying experience required for an ATP rating. This may become a major issue as many oil and gas companies are requiring their pilots to have this rating.

A resume should be simple, yet professional. Human resource personnel are often inundated with applications. A resume with more than a page or two is unnecessary. Simply stating contact information, education, flight experience and ratings, objective, and pertinent achievements or awards is all that is needed.

Following up to confirm that a resume was received is a good way to break the ice and get a feel for the current hiring demand.  However, there is a fine line between persistence and annoyance, calling more than twice a month may be unadvisable. Friends that are current employees of the company applied to may increase the chances of having a resume looked at again by contacting the human resource department on an applicant’s behalf.

If an applicant is selected for an interview, they will be invited to a company facility. Business casual is often expected for proper attire. An applicant can expect two things; a flight proficiency check and a face to face interview. The face to face is where your log book may be examined, application reviewed and a broad range of questions asked. With high turnover rates, it would behoove the applicant to make it clear that long term employment is the objective.

The flight portion is usually conducted with a company check airman, in an aircraft applicable to the position applied for. For an entry level, VFR position, an applicant can expect to fly a Bell 206, 407 or an A-star. The applicant will be expected to plan a flight, communicate effectively with ATC and safely execute the flight. While assistance is given if the airframe is unfamiliar, applicants should not expect much help.

The flight check is used to gauge basic flying abilities. Applicants are often judged based on their previous experience. Obviously an applicant with minimum flight experience and no time in a turbine will be judged differently from an applicant listing several thousand hours in the same airframe they are being tested in. According to Greg Bright, a training Captain for PHI, trainability is a major factor. A pilot open to critique and instruction is more desirable than a closed minded, hard-nosed applicant. (Bright, 2012)

If hired, initial training lasts approximately two weeks for VFR pilots and a month for IFR. Having an open mind, willingness to study and limiting outside stresses caused by family life or finances can greatly reduce the overall stress of being in a training environment and improve the chance of successful completion of the training program.


The visibility is starting to drop, fast. He punches in the nearest platform in his GPS. HI263 is three miles away. He can just barely make out the outline of the platform. The ceiling has dropped to 400 feet. As rain streams across the windshield, he radios his comm center for a weather update. They inform him of a large area of rain developed all around him, with some areas of red on the radar. They advise he diverts to the south, but the weather appears worse in that direction. HI263 is now less than two miles away and he’s losing sight of it. He has to land. As he approaches the platform, he sees another aircraft tied down on the middle of the deck. “Damn! Park on the side you idiot!” he yells. He aborts the landing and finds the next nearest platform in his Garmin. HI264, only three miles west, a large platform, big enough to hold four aircraft, he’s been there many times for fuel. Now, if he can only make it without going inadvertent IMC. The visibility is a mile or two at best in all directions.  He’s scared, but he can’t let his customers see it. “Three more days.” he whispers as adrenalin floods his body and heightens his senses.

Chapter 4

Flying Offshore

There is a multitude of oil and gas companies that contract with helicopter operators. Based on the job requirements, different aircraft are used. The major division is between IFR and VFR. Unless previous instrument and multi-engine time was acquired elsewhere, new pilots start in the VFR program, flying single engine helicopters.

One’s whole opinion on flying in the Gulf is often dependent of the customer they are flying. For instance, flying a field ship for seven to eight hours a day in the middle of summer, dodging bad weather, making nearly a hundred takeoffs and landings a day with little time to rest can wear pilots out and sour their moods. While other jobs may only fly weekdays, sometimes taking off in the late morning and returning in the afternoon. With the pilot logging only an hour or two of flight time, and having a more relaxed schedule and customer it can lead to an enjoyable, sought after position.

Regardless of the customer, daily procedures are standard. Flight preparation begins with a thorough preflight of one’s assigned aircraft. This is primarily done before sunrise as most customers expect to be able to take off as early as possible. Every operator will have different procedures but a pilot should always perform a good preflight in accordance with the rotorcraft flight manual. Once the aircraft is found airworthy, it is important to check any NOTAMS that may have been releases. Offshore deck closures, fuel locations being out of service and a host of other information can affect the safety of flight.

The weather is the biggest factor in offshore flying. Most of the time spent preparing for flight is spent checking weather conditions and forecasts. Aside from information issued by the National Weather Service such as Area Forecasts, METARs and TAFs, larger helicopter companies have weather reports generated for them. These companies also collect data from offshore locations to give pilots a priceless resource for flight planning. Once a pilot has years of experience, general weather patterns can be predicted easier. New pilots should rely on more experienced colleagues and their chief pilot’s advice on days when the weather is questionable.

For most jobs, customers will contact the pilot in the morning and inform them of their needs. Pilots will be told where they need to go and whether they are taking passengers or cargo. Passengers weight themselves and their cargo to provide a load weight the pilot can use for flight planning. These plans often change throughout the day, often in flight. Quick thinking and situational awareness is required. Light ships are often used for crew changes. These days can often be hectic as a lot of people need to be moved and people are anxious to get home. They do not like being told that weather or other factors may affect their plans, but it is ultimately the pilot’s decision. Some customers are worse than others and resisting pressure is necessary to ensure a safe flight.

The chart used for flight planning is a Gulf of Mexico, WAC scale chart. The gulf is divided in to large sections, or lease areas, and named. They are then broken into 3nm by 3nm blocks. These blocks are given numbers. A customer may request a pilot to take them to West Cameron (WC) 560. First locate the West Cameron section of the chart, then the 560 block to determine the location. Some areas also use an “A” as a prefix in addition to number only blocks. There may be a WC24 and a WC A-24, many miles apart. It is important to clarify which of these blocks the customer wants to go to.

Radio procedures offshore are unique. Every large company has a communication (comm) center. Instead of filing a flight plan with the FAA, it is done with the comm center instead. Various frequencies are available based on the area. These frequencies are named and typically coincide with the name if the lease area that the communication tower is located in. Prior to take off, the following information is radioed: Who you are, where you are, where you’re going, your ETA, the number of people on board, fuel on board given in time, and what frequency you will be closing with. An example would be “High Island (frequency), Lab 71 off of High Island 264 to Galveston 179. Put me there at 1410, 3 on board, 2 hours of fuel, closing with Galveston (frequency).” Comm centers are also essential for providing information about weather, information relays and in the event of an emergency. Maydays and emergencies are dealt with in the comm center. The radio operators are trained to respond to such events and are a life line for pilots.

Weather is often said to be the only thing that keeps Gulf flying interesting. Fog, thunderstorms and high winds can be fatal if caught unprepared. Weather conditions vary with the seasons. In the summer, high humidity and oppressive heat lead to generally calm winds, thunderstorms and afternoon showers. Small offshore tornadoes, called water spouts, can often be seen in the vicinity of a thunderstorm, as well as lightning and hail. Obviously, these storms should be avoided. If the aircraft is on a platform, the rotor blades and the airframe should be secured with tie down straps. Once the storm has passed, visually inspect the aircraft for lightning strikes. Often the helicopter is the highest object and first to get struck. Pilots and passengers should seek refuge in grounded personnel quarters. If located on an unmanned platform, it would be wise to fly away from the storm or move to a manned platform to wait the storm out. 

On hot summer days, aircraft performance suffers dramatically and paying close attention to limitations is imperative. A Bell 206 at max gross weight will have a hard time taking off from a platform with no wind on very hot, muggy days. Many decks are too small to offer ground effect performance. Offloading passengers or cargo may be required.

During late summer and into fall, the threat of hurricanes is on everyone’s minds. Evacuating thousands of platforms and rigs is a tremendous undertaking. In addition to offshore evacuation, many bases and housing quarters on land are also evacuated if located in the projected path of a storm. It would be advisable for new pilots who choose to move their families to the region to find a home outside of the evacuation zones. Companies may not release pilots to return home to evacuate as helicopters will be flown out of the hurricanes projected path. Having a plan in place for one’s family will relieve stress and worry in the event of a hurricane, allowing pilots to focus on their jobs.

In the spring and fall, fast moving cold fronts can lead to violent winds and squall lines. Many helicopters have been blown off the decks when these fronts barrel across the open water. Winds can be so strong that airframe tie down strap securing the helicopter to the deck have been broken off, with the aircraft going over the edge.

Winter offshore is just a series of cold fronts, with temperatures dropping in to the thirties one day and up to the sixties the next. Snow and icing is rare, but does occur. Following proper anti-ice procedures is important as aircraft have been lost due to icing. Winter tends to be mild with clear sunny days as the dry arctic air settles across the warm gulf waters.

Spring is fog season. As warm moist air reaches the cool shallow waters, advection fog can tenaciously linger. It is recommended to bring an overnight bag on every flight. Many pilots have been trapped in fog for days at a time, waiting for a cold front to move through and clear the air. Fog, in many pilots opinion, is the greatest hazard offshore. It can form in an instant and, unlike flying over land, pilots may not be able to descend rapidly and land before the visibility drops to unsafe levels. While regulations allow helicopters great leeway on flying in low visibility, many companies set their own standards. Three statute miles visibility and five hundred foot ceilings are the common weather minimums among the major operators offshore.

In addition to weather, there are other hazards unique to the offshore environment. An S76 crashed into the Louisiana marsh, killing all but one aboard. Upon inspection, it appeared the engines were shut off and the rotor blades stalled, causing the aircraft to drop from the sky. Biological debris found at the scene was sent to be analyzed. It was found to be the remains of a hawk. The bird apparently came through the windshield and pushed the throttles to the off position. Having only seconds, the pilots understandably were shocked by the wind and glass and were unable to diagnose the situation in enough time to safely enter an autorotation. (NTSB, 2010)

Pelicans, seagulls, peregrine falcons, and a host of other birds make their homes on the gulf coast, as well as on offshore structures. It is not uncommon to have a heli-deck completely covered with birds. They will most often move once the helicopter is about to land. While birds tend to avoid helicopters, it is incumbent upon pilots to avoid bird strikes when possible.

At times, it seems that the engineers who design offshore structures have no regard for aircraft safety. Towers, pipes, cranes, vent stacks etc. placed near heli-decks are common obstacles and can easily be missed on a high recon. Additionally, on the deck itself can there be hazards. Tie down rings and welded metal plates can catch a skid, providing a pivot point for a dynamic rollover. Safely landing and taking off from a platform is no easy task.

Prior to landing, a high recon should be performed, especially if the platform is unfamiliar to the pilot. This gives the pilot the opportunity to plan an approach path in to the wind and spot potential obstacles. Wind direction can easily be ascertained by wind socks commonly found offshore or by simply looking at the water. With moderate to strong wind, foam from breaking wave peaks leave streaks in the water indicating the direction of the wind. Once a path has been planned, a low recon can be conducted on final approach. Particularly close attention should be paid to less obvious obstacles that may be protruding above the deck height. Lighting, pipes, etc. can prove fatal if it strikes a low mounted tail rotor. Having the courage to abort an approach and go around is an indication of a good pilot. Trying to salvage a bad approach to save face with customers is a sure way to damage an aircraft and risk lives.

When departing a platform, a two-step pick-up limits the risk of dynamic rollover. Once light on the skids, lift the toes of the aircraft up slowly, then the aft portion of the skids. This way if a skid is stuck, there is less momentum and it will be felt early. Once established in a hover, lift straight up, if power allows, before rotating forward. Since engine failures tend to happen with high power increases, by lifting straight up initially, an engine failure would result in landing back on the deck, not in the water. An airspeed-over-altitude takeoff is preferred, since departing a platform immediately places the pilot in the dangerous portion of the height-velocity diagram. Once a safe airspeed is reached, climb at Vy into the wind until a safe altitude is reached. Aggressive flying, and putting the aircraft in a position that a safe autorotation cannot be executed is cause for termination at some helicopter companies. The “cowboy” pilot is being replaced with a highly regulated, standardized replacement. New pilots may be annoyed by the rather boring style of flying, but keep in mind that to your customer you are simply a cab driver. Imagine getting in a taxi with a crazy driver, weaving in and out of traffic, narrowly avoiding collisions. The driver may be very good and never hit anything, but it does not make the passenger feel safe. Though boring, “Flying Miss Daisy” ensures the passengers are safe, comfortable and happy. This should be the goal of every pilot.

Once work has been completed, most aircraft return to their base, although some stay offshore. It never hurts to keep a small overnight bag onboard for such occasions. The engine is rinsed with fresh water to prevent corrosion from salt buildup and the aircraft is tied down. Paperwork is filled out to record flight time, takeoffs, etc. Then, finally, the work day ends.


Two days stuck on HI264. The storm that forced him to land decided to take up residence over the area, trapping them offshore in relentless rain and thunderstorms. He is lucky he made it to this platform. Cooks, big screen TV, exercise equipment, it was the Four Seasons of the Gulf in his opinion. Had he been able to land at HI263, he would have been stuck on an unmanned platform, hoping his company could get a boat out to take them somewhere manned. He’s happy, the weather is breaking. “One more wake up.” he exclaims with a grin.

Chapter 5


The opportunities present in the Gulf attract pilots from across the globe. For many, it is the only place to gain training and experience in multi-engine, IFR aircraft. Though often used as a stepping stone to higher paying, international jobs, many pilots make a long career out of Gulf flying. Despite a pilot’s long term goals, following three steps prior to employment can increase job satisfaction if hired.

First, pilots must decide what their long term goals are. EMS, corporate, international, utility, IFR, etc. are all objectives that require different paths. By knowing a destination, a course can be set.

Secondly, understand and accept the lifestyle of Gulf pilots. Being away from home for half the month is simply unacceptable for many families. Some despise the heat, humidity and culture of the South so much they cannot tolerate it. By understanding what is required, pilots and families can make an informed decision as to whether the life of a Gulf pilot is workable for their personalities.

Finally, be willing to submit to the rules. Many new pilots are stunned by the regulations and strictness of the rules companies place on them. It is important to understand that most of the rules  are written in blood, as they are the result of accidents. For a light ship pilot, flying alone, it is easy to develop bad habits. Having the courage to follow the rules and put safety before customer convenience will ensure a long, safe, happy career.











Austin, D., B. Carriker, T. McGuire, J. Pratt, T. Priest, and A. G. Pulsipher. (2004). History of

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Times –Picayune retrieved 2-5-2012 from http://www.nola.com/speced/cajun/content/ coonass17.html

No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted.
- Aesop
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Forums > JH Alternate Forum > General Helicopter Discussion > A New Pilots Guide to the Gulf of Mexico

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