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A day in the life of a North Sea helicopter pilot

by A BALPA member

The North Sea helicopter pilot’s day starts early. After strong coffee, the two crew meet one hour before departure to plan the flight. Our customers – primarily oil and gas, although increasingly offshore renewables companies – need to rotate their offshore staff frequently, and require the early start.

With at least 100 employees on a manned production rig, and more than 500 on development projects, it takes a lot of flights by a typical 19-seat helicopter. There are around 40 large helicopters flying in the UK Northern North Sea alone. A typical flight includes several offshore landings, considering the availability of alternatives for each sector, as well as the availability of fuel on the helidecks and the type of approach required. Only larger drilling rigs and established production rigs tend to have fuel.

While waiting for load figures, the crew don their survival equipment – an immersion suit and life jacket – then return to adjust fuel, and the captain accepts the flight. Next, the co-pilot will head to refuel the aircraft and conduct pre-flight checks, while the captain visits engineering and briefs the passengers in the gate; we have no cabin crew, so most safety briefs happen before departure.

Manual handling

Approaching the destination visual flight rules, the pilot flying will resume manual flying to manoeuvre the aircraft on to finals, avoiding ships, rigs or other aircraft working in the same area. The destination may well be moving – a ship or rig on tow – in rough seas with average six-metre waves. The handling pilot is determined by the orientation of the installation, as only one pilot will have the landing references on approach; this can differ day to day for the same installation with different winds or depending on obstructions on the final approach. To complicate this, the deck may only just be bigger than the aircraft, so margins may be fine. The crew will then check the weather, refuel, and fly the sector back to base.

So why fly in the North Sea? I rarely spend nights away from home, and our customers only require us to fly between 0700 and 2200. The flying, particularly manually, in bad weather and at night to small vessels, can be challenging. Mostly though, it’s the people. As a small company, I know all the other pilots well and this gives us a great sense of camaraderie.

Get in touch

The nextGen steering group is keen to hear from members about other professional pilot roles. If you have a particular interest in a job, or you currently operate as a pilot in an interesting role, then the nextGen steering group would love to hear from you. Email us at nextgenenqueries@balpa.org