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A DAY IN THE LIFE.....a deep-water pilot in the Gulf of Mexico

The 4:00 AM beeping of the alarm clock signals the start of another day for Jayne Brodie, a helicopter pilot assigned as an SIC (second-in-command) on a PHI Bell 412SP based in Morgan City, Louisiana. Like most of the 1,000 + Gulf Coast helicopter pilots, Jayne works a 7 day on, 7 day off schedule and stays in company-supplied housing while at work. She makes the weekly commute from her home in Pensacola, Florida on Thursday afternoon and starts her work hitch with a 5:30 AM Friday morning briefing. Since Jayne’s customer wants the first flight to depart the heliport at 6:00 AM she and her PIC (pilot-in-command) have already done the preflight, checked the weather and filed their IFR flight plans before the 5:30 briefing begins.

1300 lbs of fuel are pumped into the 412’s fuel tanks while the passengers watch a video safety briefing in the passenger lounge. Then, ten sleepy drilling rig hands are escorted out to the waiting aircraft. The passengers used to pay pretty close attention to what Jayne was doing in the cockpit (being flown around by a young female was a bit of an oddity in these parts). But, after 7 years of flying for PHI, Jayne has become just one of the “guys”. Most of her passengers will be asleep before she reaches cruising altitude. The 412SP has seats for thirteen passengers but the typical offshore worker (affectionately known as “salt-water gorillas” to the pilots) weighs 220 lbs and carries 30 lbs of baggage. The useful load is 3,800 lbs and 1300 lbs of fuel is required to get to the first stop. Do the math.

When the “Before Starting Engines Checklist” is complete and the twin Pratt & Whitney PT-6-3B engines are running, another safety briefing is played over the cabin PA system while Jayne goes through the “Systems Checklist” in the right seat. Her PIC is programming the GPS navigation system and getting the IFR clearance from New Orleans Approach Control. Jayne and her PIC will swap seats and duties on a daily basis as both pilots are fully qualified in the aircraft and this helps give Jayne the experience she will need to pass her PIC checkride when the time comes. Five minutes later the two pilots go through the “Before Takeoff (IFR) Checklist” and hover out for takeoff. It’s 6:00 AM. Right on time.

The 412 is typically within a few lbs of maximum gross weight (11,900 lbs) when departing the shore base and a certain degree of finesse is required to coax it through translational lift and into a 500 fpm climb. “Category A” take off? What’s that? Make no mistake, these are hard working helicopters and Jayne and her fellow Gulf Coast helicopter pilots earn their keep every day. As the search for oil and natural gas has moved further and further offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, PHI and the other helicopter operators have had to struggle with a host of new problems. Move more people. Move them faster. Move them farther. In any weather. And do it with little or no help from the FAA. Weather reporting? Communications? Radar coverage? Do it yourself. And do it in an economic environment that requires you to do more with less. Most of PHI’s 412s are 1980-1990 vintage and have more hours in the air than the pilots flying them. No glass cockpits here—strictly round gauge technology. But they are superbly equipped for the task at hand with full dual-pilot IFR instrumentation, IFR-certified GPS, weather and mapping radar, radar altimeters, TAS (traffic advisory system), “OuterLink” satellite communications, “pop-out” floats, etc. This 412 is a far cry from the R-22 “Robbie” Jayne was flying just seven short years ago.

During the climb to their cruising altitude of 4,000 ft Jayne engages the flight director and sits back to enjoy the sunrise as the 412SP speeds smoothly along (relatively speaking, of course) above the clouds. The flight director is not standard equipment on PHI’s 412’s (there are probably only 10 in the whole fleet of 200 + helicopters) but this aircraft has one due to the distances involved in supporting the customer’s drilling operations.

Forty minutes after takeoff, Jayne starts her descent and IFR approach to a production platform, 80 NM out in the Gulf. This is not their destination, only an enroute refueling stop. Their final destination is a “deep water” drilling rig, 160 NM south-southeast of the Morgan City heliport.

Jayne has to get out and pump her own gas on the production platform. Not a problem today, but certainly an unpleasant experience when the temperature is 4 deg. C, the wind is gusting to 30 kts and it’s raining. Out on the drilling rigs, the refueling will be done by the helideck crew under the supervision of the HLO (helicopter landing officer). HLOs have been used for decades in the North Sea but are relatively new to the Gulf of Mexico and are usually found only on the larger drilling rigs.

Nearly two hours after the drilling crew was loaded aboard, they land at their final destination, the “Deepwater Pathfinder” drill ship. The arriving crew visits briefly with the departing crew while the 412 takes on more fuel. One hour and forty-five minutes and one more fuel stop later, the 412 lands back in Morgan City.

After a thirty minute break, the 412 is refueled and the process starts all over again. The next flight will proceed back out to the “Deepwater Pathfinder” and from there they’ll fly 110 NM west-southwest, to the “ENSCO 7500” before returning to Morgan City. All in all they’ll be gone for over four hours and refuel four times on this one flight. These rigs are so far offshore that for a time, between the two rigs, the 412 will be out of radio coverage with PHI’s communications center. Jayne will rely on relays through other helicopters to give her position reports. As a last resort she will type in and transmit position reports via the “OuterLink”, but most pilots prefer the old fashion VHF radio. There’s just something reassuring about talking with another human being when you’re 150 miles offshore (deep in “Boudreaux’s triangle”).

The ENSCO 7500 is a “dynamic-positioning semi-submersible drilling rig.” It resembles other floating drilling rigs that are towed from location to location and then anchored in place during the drilling process. Due to the depth of the water, anchor chains are out of the question and she uses numerous “thrusters” to hold her in position over the well. The homeward-bound crew waits anxiously while Jayne shuts down and the 412 is refueled. Most offshore refueling is done “hot” (engines running) but PHI requires that all the aircraft’s oil levels are to be checked at least every 3.5 hours, so on this trip a shutdown is required somewhere along the way. Once refueling is complete the passengers quickly stow their baggage and clamber aboard the helicopter. They are boisterous and animated, glad to be finally on their way home. Fifteen minutes later they are all asleep.

By 2:00 PM Jayne is back in Morgan City and trying to decide what to have for lunch. The galley on the “ENSCO 7500” has sent in lunches for the crew, but as usual, it’s a couple of thousand calories of deep fried cholesterol and Jayne opts for a salad from the local McDonalds. She already has six and one-half hours of flight time and barring an unexpected problem offshore, she’s done flying for the day. At 4:00 PM they’ll rinse and dry the engines (a daily requirement in this salt-air environment), perform the “power assurance checks” on the engines, tie the aircraft down and complete the daily paperwork. One down. Six to go.

Dana Raaz served as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot and has since flown for PHI for 35 years in operations all over the globe. He currently resides in Lafayette, Louisiana with his wife and family.

A long trip to the “Deep Water”

How did this young lady from “Down Under” end up here in the swamps of south Louisiana? Well for starters, Jayne is not one to be told that she can’t do something. Her resume would be impressive for anyone twice her age. Jayne left Australia when she was 24 and spent the next three years traveling extensively throughout India, Europe and Africa. From there, a love of sailing took her to the U.S. where she worked on luxury and racing yachts for two years. The owner of one of the yachts owned a 206B and her first direct exposure to helicopters was a brief ride over Nantucket in 1988.

Soon after, Jayne returned to Australia and ultimately opened her own café, “Good Fillings”, the profits from which allowed Jayne to start taking flying lessons in an R-22. Interestingly enough, when I asked Jayne when she first felt the fire that would set her on the road to becoming a helicopter pilot she said, “Never.” She remembered watching the Westpac Surf life-saving helicopters working the beaches of Sydney and thinking that might be an interesting job. But, she confesses that a basic fear of flying kept her grounded. “I guess the real reason I started taking helicopter lessons was because a pilot friend of my dad’s told me it would be a waste of time. He said I had two strikes against me” (she smiles as she recalls the conversation). “First, I was a female and no one would get in a helicopter flown by a woman. Second, I was no spring chicken and it was too late in my life to be considering a new profession. That pretty much cinched it. I would prove him wrong.”

Helicopter flight training is quite expensive in Australia and Jayne could only afford one hour of flight time a week. Finally, she closed the café and took a position as an assistant chef on a 190 foot luxury motor yacht that was destined to work the charter season in Europe. As things turned out, it was sold to the Sultan of Brunei and remained in Brunei, a small country on the island of Borneo in SE Asia for 2 years. Between salary and bonuses, she had saved enough to return to the U.S. where training was less expensive. She settled in Orange County, California and took lessons while waiting on tables for the next sixteen months to supplement her savings while she worked on her ratings (Private, Commercial, Instrument and CFI). After earning her ratings, Jayne went to work as an instructor for “Channel Islands Aviation” in Camarillo, California. Like most new helicopter pilots she had to build time before she could apply for a non-instructing position. For the next 2 ½ years Jayne instructed for a living and built time any way she could. She flew as co-pilot in Bell 205’s on frost-control and crop spraying operations; flew bank paper around in a 206L and even briefly herded reindeer with an R-22 in Alaska. All without pay.

Finally, after sending out literally scores of resumes over a two-year period, PHI asked Jayne to come down to Lafayette for an interview. “I don’t think they were terribly impressed with my resume, but, after the interview they offered me a job. Back then PHI was still hiring mostly ex-military pilots and at the time they only had one other female pilot on staff.” Now the majority of “new-hires” come from the R-22 instructor pool.

One advantage of working for a big company like PHI is the diversity of experiences afforded to those pilots willing to relocate from time to time. Jayne flew 206’s in the Gulf of Mexico for six months and then for a year in Santa Barbara, California. After six more months back on the Gulf Coast she accepted an assignment in Arizona and spent the next two years flying EMS in BK-117’s. She returned to Lafayette in late 2000 to get checked out in Bell 212/412’s and to get into the instrument program. Jayne was also selected to receive “long-line” training during this period as PHI was getting heavily into fire fighting. She got all the training and was qualified as a long-line pilot, but, before the next fire season PHI management made the decision to get out of this line of business and concentrate on offshore and EMS operations. “I hope PHI gets back into fire fighting at a later date. I think it has to be the most exciting and challenging type of flying there is.” In the meantime Jayne bides her time as a 412 SIC and dreams of things yet to come.

Editor's note: I would like to thank the Author, Dana Raaz; the Editor of Autorotate Magazine, Tony Fonze; and the Pilot, Jayne Brodie for allowing us to publish this article on Justhelicopters.com. Not only is it a very interesting article, but we hope that it might be an inspiration to other women considering careers in the helicopter industry. Reprinted with permission from Autorotate, the journal of the professional helicopter pilot; www.autorotate.org.


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