Tropical Storm Karen Approaches

  • Oct 3, 2013 5:11pm GMT

For the states of Louisiana and Florida a familiar scene is about to unfold. It's been an extremely mild summer weather wise, and as the local residents and offshore workers know, we're due for a hurricane. While still only a tropical storm, Karen's impact in the Gulf of Mexico will have a significant effect on aviation.

Various helicopter companies began the evacuation process of nonessential personnel from the numerous oil rigs today. The real push/rush to evacuate begins bright and early tomorrow morning. As one might assume, every rig would like to operate until the last minute. However, most companies have learned over the years that there is a finite number of helicopters available. More importantly though is the weather that may build in front of the storm system. It's great to have a plethora of aircraft at your disposal, but they're not that useful when the winds hit 70kts and vis/ceilings are 0/0.

Because of these facts, companies take extra safety measures that minimize the risks by evacuating early. So beginning tomorrow, the "real" flying begins (at least for the next few days). For pilots, 95% of what we earn is based on the 5% of intense weather or emergencies we deal with.

Luckily for many of us, this won't be our first rodeo. I was lucky enough to fly with what we all call a "crusty" or "salty" pilot a couple years ago during this same situation. There's the learning curve, there's the fire hose, and then there's the flying on the outskirts of a tropical storm/hurricane. The sensation is similar to a roller coaster if it didn't have tracks. The down and up drafts can be incredible. At one moment the aircraft may be at 150kts and the next less than 60kts. Some oil rigs have legs that touch the sea floor, which makes them quite stable. Others are floating with cables that connect to the floor. These are slightly less fun as a landing pilot. And then there's the boats without stabilization systems. Doing a left seat landing (right seat usually commands a chopper), with a boat heaving at ridiculous rates is an artwork in itself. However the roughest part may be sitting in the helicopter on the boat pad after landing during the loading process. Trying not to get vertigo or allow the aircraft to roll is less than enjoyable as you would imagine.

In the end the goals and results are usually the same. Get everyone out. Get everyone back to their rigs. Do it all with a minimized risk level that keeps the familiar faces going back to their families.