All helicopters operations to and from Offshore installations globally, requires radio communication procedures en-route by all relevant parties concerned in order to facilitate a safe passage. This communication takes place between the Pilot, ATC or Base Station Operator (dependant on the type of Airspace at origin), Radio Operator and Helicopter Landing Officer/HLO. ((the last two mentioned disciplines refer to those personnel who are stationed on the Offshore Instillation). Having worked on various Oil Rigs throughout Africa and the North Sea, I have been fortunate enough to have the opportunity of experiencing these procedures while carrying out duties as a Radio Operator.
NOTE: For information, certain Instillations require that only the HLO manages the helicopter operations as this has an impact, to a degree, on reducing their operational manning costs.
Once the helicopter is safely airborne from land, (sometimes referred to in the Offshore environment as `The Beach`), and has crossed the shoreline en-route to the Offshore Instillation, (such as an Oil Rig or Container Vessel for example), they will attempt to make contact with the Radio Operator or HLO at destination on the relevant Aviation frequency, while continuing to broadcast their intentions to all traffic on the designated frequency for that area, until such time as this intended communication has been established.
Now while the Helicopter is in flight en-route, there is the possibility that they may fly over, or in the proximity of other shipping in that area at any given time. Neither the Helicopter, nor the Vessel that they are flying over or in close proximity to, will communicate with each other on any Aeronautical or Marine frequency as:
- There is no such approved laid down procedure that is currently co-existing between Aviation and Marine Law requirements;
- They are focused on carrying out their core duties safely according to the Company Standard Operating Procedures (SOP`s), which does not list (a) mentioned above, as a requirement.
Now in accordance with the International Maritime Organisation Law, a total of 4 Sea Areas has been defined to encompass the legal requirements and processes for Marine VHF transmissions, one of them being the compulsory obligation of being in possession of a Marine VHF Short Range Certification (SRC) license. This radio licensing permits (ch70), alerting and radiotelephony services by the relevant Operator. These `Sea Areas` comprise of four parts with specifications, that collectively make up all the parts of the ocean reference. This means that all shipping will be listening out for possible transmissions on Marine VHF Channel 70 when steaming, or whilst at anchor at sea.
On the flip side the Helicopter operations are monitoring and broadcasting on an allocated Aeronautical VHF frequency for that area while en-route, and may also attempt to call the destination vessel on a Marine VHF working channel, (such as Channel 10 or 13) if they cannot establish adequate communications on the Aeronautical channel/frequency. The Radio Telephony procedures used in Aviation and Marine can differ in certain instances which could also lead to possible ambiguity or confusion even if contact was achieved between these two parties.
Should an emergency situation take place with a ship or a helicopter at any stage, while the helicopter is say in a dense shipping lane for example, i.e. numerous broadcasts simultaneously on the respective aviation and marine channels/frequencies, neither the helicopter nor the shipping vessels involved will be talking to one another independently, until such time as they are given guidance as to what is taking place from other parties that are possibly communicating on these selected individual Aviation / Marine channels/frequencies. Even if either of these parties wish to call the other for assistance at any stage, they will not have a guaranteed checklist identifying which of these frequencies/channels are designated as those for emergency or establishing contact communications. Should they eventually communicate with one other on frequency, because of the differences in RT procedures between Aviation and Marine disciplines, will they automatically understand what the other party is transmitting, or will they need to ask that party to `Say Again` at a critical stage?
So to summarise the concerns that have arisen from this observation, and, to the best of my knowledge:
- Helicopter Pilots are licensed to speak on a VHF Aeronautical Frequency, however there is no law that says they need to be licensed for VHF Marine Short-Range certification as part of their Offshore flight operations.
- There is thus no Law that says a Helicopter Pilot flying Offshore needs to speak on a Marine Channel / Frequency to any vessel, including destination offshore instillation/vessel en-route, at any stage in flight.
- There are no stipulated procedures, or designated channels/frequencies, for helicopters to make Operations safe calls to other possible shipping vessels that they may encounter en-route.
- There are no stipulated procedures, or designated channels/frequencies, for possible shipping vessels to make Operations safe calls to helicopters that they may encounter flying in the vessels proximity while steaming on their intended journey.
In addition to the above, and with the introduction of Drones as part of the next generation culture and technology framework, the Helicopter Pilot may also needs to be advised timeously by the operator on a shipping vessel that they may encounter en-route, where drone activity is taking place which could affect their intended flightpath. Checklists need to be established for all Helicopter Pilots flying Offshore, as well as all Vessels at sea, with respect to active Helicopter and Drone Operations at sea.
In conclusion, it appears that there may be a consideration, taking all these above-mentioned discussion points into account, to revise Offshore Radio procedures for any helicopter operation in order to encompass communications that will meet both the Aviation and Marine safety processes and requirements. By integrating these procedures, the safety policies and processes that exist at sea for all shipping vessels, should without exception be better aligned to facilitate standard, and emergency communications in advance, concerning any possible helicopter, shipping or drone activity that may be in the same, or similar environment at any stage.
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- Dylan Kemlo