Twenty eight floaters are drilling, producing or en route in the deepwater Gulf of Mexico, according to Rigzone’s Riglogix Database.
Though plenty of offshore personnel travel by supply vessel to floaters, some rigs are just too far from shore to commute via water. Many offshore personnel from cooks to installation managers take helicopters to work. And with offshore crews typically working shifts of two weeks on and two weeks off, there is a constant flow of helicopter traffic over the GOM. With weather in the GOM unpredictable–from fog to strong thunderstorms, not to mention hurricanes–helicopter safety is of utmost importance to the offshore crews.
Helicopter Underwater Egress Training (HUET) often is required for offshore personnel. The HUET program teaches individuals how to survive a controlled helicopter ditching over water.
Several companies throughout the U.S. provide HUET, along with the Lafayette-based Safety Management Systems (SMS). The HUET course SMS provides is a one-day, 8 hour course.
“The first four hours is in the classroom. We go over survival skills, equipment within the helicopter, ditching procedures, how to prepare for crash landing and how to exit the helicopter. We also show students survivor interviews and different types of helicopters and various exits from them,” explained Randall Thomassiee, operations supervisor.
Right before the course breaks for lunch, the instructor takes the students to the pool simulator, which acts as a helicopter cockpit. They talk about what to expect for the afternoon session in the pool as many who go through the training are apprehensive to go in the water.
“Some people who come to us can’t swim,” Thomassiee explained. “We teach them survival, not swimming. If you go down in a helicopter, as soon as you come out, you should have life vest on, so you pull the life vest cord to inflate your life vest. You don’t need to swim, but those who can’t swim are scared of water.”
The SMS simulators have grated walkways overhead and underfoot where an air gap forms when the simulator is submerged. If something were to happen to a student and they could not get out of their seatbelt, the divers can release the seatbelt and push the student up to the air gap.
Once the students realize that, the submersion is not as hard for them, Thomassiee added.
The afternoon session starts with simple survival swimming techniques and a lesson about the life raft and the equipment in the raft and how to use it. It is then time to enter the helicopter simulator. Depending on which company SMS is training that day, the instructor may run through as few as three simulations or as many as seven.
SMS requires two certified divers to be in the water on each side of the simulator, as well as one instructor inside for every two students. SMS instructors are Red Cross certified lifeguards and the divers are certified either through Naui or PADI, which are two recognized national diving certifications. The instructors walk through the procedure with the students before going in the water and ask the students to open the windows and doors so they understand how they work. When the students are ready, SMS lowers the helicopter simulator in the water and the students are submerged.
“The first dunk is straight in, not inverted,” Thomassiee explained. “The instructor tells the students to take their last breath and they go underwater. The students then need to find an exit, find the handle or lever, push on it, and keep that one hand outside of the helicopter as a point of reference to safety. With the other hand, they reach down to unbuckle, and then pull themselves out.”
The second simulation has no doors and windows, but the students are inverted and submerged in the water. The students follow the same escape techniques to find a window with one hand, unbuckle with the other and exit to safety.
The third simulation is cross cabin and inverted, where the window from where they went out before will no longer be available to them. The students have to swim across the cabin to escape.
“Normally you will have someone in front of you, so the person who is closest to the window pushes it out, unbuckles, goes out and has to get out of the way so the next person surfacing doesn’t kick the person behind them,” Thomassiee added.
Mark Kraft, current regional sales manager at Orion International is a retired Naval Air Crewman who has undergone HUET training. He said his training was similar but more intense than that for offshore personnel, whereas he was blindfolded for two of his four dunks to simulate nighttime.
SMS follows the same basic HUET program as others in the U.S., which is based on a recommended practice for water survival. HUET is not federally regulated. The training course is designed around the Coast Guard and aviation’s best practices.
“When we teach people how to safely exit the aircraft- that training comes from the aviation community best practices,” Thomassiee explained, “but once they are safely out of the aircraft and in open water, then the Coast Guard training takes over.”
SMS trains 80-100 students per week with 10-15 students per class per day.
“We may have about a 2 percent dropout rate, so most, regardless if they can swim or not, can get through training. Those who refuse can’t work offshore,” Thomassiee said.