Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hurricane Dean and the Evacuation Fandango

I'm away from home again, and back at work. This is the fifth day of my hitch ("hitch" is what we pilots call our seven or fourteen-day stints at work), and a hurricane evacuation is underway, sort of. I'm half the crew of a Bell 412 that one of the major oil companies hired to help out with the evac, but for the most part, I've simply sat here at the base, waiting for the word to launch offshore. So far, that word hasn't come. As hurricane evacs go, this one has been fairly easy for most of the crews coming on this hitch. For one thing, many non-essential folks out in the Gulf of Mexico had already been evacuated from offshore facilities. That happened last week due to the formation of Tropical Storm Erin, which formed right in the Gulf, instead of moving into the Gulf from the Atlantic and Caribbean as is more the norm. For another, since the fateful storm season of 2005, the oil companies seem all the more cautious about getting people out of the offshore oil fields once a storm shows the slightest risk to the Gulf region.

The oil companies weren't always so cautious. In August 1980, I launched from Cameron, Louisiana, in a seven-seat Bell 206L-1 Long Ranger, for the waters off of Galveston, Texas. My job was to evacuate the four remaining men on an offshore jackup drilling rig as Hurricane Allen moved westward through the Gulf of Mexico. Then, as now, we had radio communications--"flight following"--while offshore. There was a key difference then, however. Now, we have remote transceivers located about the Gulf, which link to a central communications center in PHI's company headquarters in Lafayette, Louisiana. If a transceiver becomes inoperable, or we're simply going too far out for effective radio coverage, all of our larger aircraft have satellite links to the comm center; we can tell them where we're going and when we'll be there without ever using the radio, via text flight plans. Then, however, satellite links were nothing but fantasy in our aircraft, and offshore communications were provided by a real-live offshore "communications specialists" who were also certified weather observers. The problem was, our offshore comm folks had been evacuated. About sixty miles offshore from Galveston, I had no one to talk to except another pilot, in a Bell 212. His destination was about twenty miles from mine, so after landing, we'd lose contact with each other. We agreed to give each other twenty minutes after landing to load passengers, take off, then climb enough to re-establish radio contact.

It was a lonely feeling, being out there over the Gulf of Mexico--in a single engine helicopter--while a hurricane approached. I passed a production platform about 30 miles from my destination, and noted that the waves were breaking several feet over the boat landing of the platform. Most of the boat landings were about fifteen feet over the water, so that meant the seas were running about twenty feet or so. On a typical summer day, we pilots tend to view the Gulf as a big, tranquil forced landing area. But at that moment, it hit me with a wallop: if the engine failed, the inflatable floats mounted on the skids wouldn't keep the aircraft upright for long. Also, in those days, many if not most of our smaller aircraft didn't have life rafts on board. Mine didn't. If I had to ditch, I'd soon be in the water with my life vest, praying that someone could spot me as a speck in the turbulent sea.

Something else: few of our smaller aircraft had Loran C (sort of a predecessor to GPS) installed in those days. My only navigation aid was an NDB receiver (which tended to be nearly useless with lightning in the area), but the rig I was flying to didn't have a beacon installed. I was navigating by dead reckoning: hold a heading, guess the ground speed, fly that heading for a given amount of time, then look for a place to land.

Visibility had been good early in the flight, but deteriorated as I got further offshore. As I came up on the end of my dead reckoning time, it was down to about three miles. I saw nothing ahead, nothing to the right, nothing to the left. Hoping I'd underestimated the wind speed, and thus overestimated my ground speed, I decided to continue on the same heading for another five minutes. However, after only a couple of additional minutes, visibility quickly deteriorated from three miles to less than a mile. It was time to turn around, to give up, to leave those four guys on a mobile drilling rig to face the storm. But then, halfway through my 180 degree turn, a jackup rig appeared in the windshield. It was "my" rig. If I could get the helicopter on the helideck, those guys were going home.

It turned out that landing was one of those big ifs. The helideck, in terms of wind direction, was on the leeward side of the rig. The wind was whistling through the structure of the rig and the derrick, and my helicopter was getting tossed around on short final--I was making large adjustments in power just to maintain an approach path. I glanced at the airspeed indicator about 100 feet out. It was bouncing between fifty and sixty knots, and I was barely crawling toward the landing site.

I landed, and the four guys immediately started walking toward the helicopter. I shook my head, trying to convey one message: "NO!" I wanted to make sure the helicopter would stay in place on the wet deck with all of that wind. I leveled the rotor system, only to find that the aircraft began inching backward toward the edge of the helideck, and toward the ocean. I tilted the rotor system forward, essentially flying the helicopter onto the deck. I didn't dare take my hands off the controls, because I might have to take off rather than be blown into the ocean. I tried to motion with my head that the passengers should approach from the side. Instead, they took my head motion as a message to "come on," and walked toward the low part of the rotor disk. I shook my head violently, trying to convey one message: "STOP!" They continued forward, oblivious to anything I tried to convey. As they neared the rotor tip path, I partially leveled the disk. The helicopter began shuddering backward again. Once the guys moved safely inside the tip path (there's more "guaranteed" head clearance as you get closer to the helicopter), I returned to "flying" the aircraft onto the deck.

The landing had been difficult, and just short of downright scary. With the extra weight of the guys and their baggage on board, I didn't figure the takeoff would be a piece of cake. It wasn't. The aircraft lifted easily enough at first, but once I got to a couple of feet off the deck, it felt as if a giant hand was shaking the airframe. When I finally got clear of the rig and through a heavy shower in my takeoff path, my passengers actually cheered. There were only four of 'em, but it sounded like I had twenty people on board.

About three minutes after takeoff, the 212 pilot called me. Man, it was good to hear his voice. "It's getting bad out here, Hal. Let's go back to the ranch, and I'll buy you a cup of coffee." "Scott," I answered, "I could use something stronger than coffee when we get back." He chuckled over the radio. "I know what you mean."


This is the morning of my fifth day back at work, and it's been the most boring hurricane evac I've experienced. We made one flight my first day back. Then, it became apparent that Dean wouldn't likely prove a threat to the Gulf of Mexico as it took a southerly track. The oil companies put the offshore evacuations on hold for the most part. We then sat around until yesterday, when we flew our aircraft from Morgan City to Lafayette. It seems that the training department needs our aircraft to do annual training on the pilots heading down to our Antarctica operation. Last night, I had a good time dining at a local Mexican restaurant with the guys from the Antarctic crew.

Yep, it's been a boring hitch so far, but I'm not complaining.