This morning at around 7:42 local time, a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter carrying six oil and gas workers ditched some 150+ kilometers off Bintulu, Malaysia. The passengers, from from France, Norway, Finland, Denmark and Canada, along with two flight crew, all escaped the aircraft as it sank and were recovered by a passing vessel according to reports. No one seems to have suffered major injuries.
From 2000 through 2012 there were ninety-seven offshore helicopter ditchings (controlled or moderately controlled descents) and crashes (uncontrolled descents). Most of these accidents- 74%- were attributed to mechanical failure of some sort, 13% were pilot error, and the rest were caused by weather and other factors. Of the 486 persons involved, 159 perished which indicates a survival rate of 68%, but the data can be misleading. There are other factors that relate to survival.
Some of what we have learned from accident data are things that seem obvious given the environment. Ditching during daylight – like our friends off Malaysia this morning – is more survivable than nighttime ditching, for example. Cold water is more dangerous than warm water in helicopter accidents. Warning times prior to ditching are also a factor, though don’t expect much in the way of preparation time “in the unlikely event of a water landing.” In the ninety-seven mishaps discussed above, accident reports from only four indicated a warning time of greater than 15 seconds.
Far and away, the leading cause of death in helicopter accidents offshore is drowning, not impact injuries. The ability to get to an exit and get out of the helicopter is key. Training in helicopter egress is anything but standard, however. The number of rides in a Helicopter Underwater Escape Trainer (HUET) device vary between training organizations and fidelity between what you fly in and what you train in is often not there.
A 2010 report by Michael Tabor, PhD – a senior research scientist for Falck Safety Services Canada – points out that there are over 23 different types of exits in use on helicopters today. Some of those approved emergency exits are only 19″ wide (good luck six-footers). Practicing escape through “a” helicopter exit may help; practicing escape through “your” helicopter exit may help a lot more.
So it’s good news from Bintulu on the survival of eight offshore workers. Take that training seriously, Friends. It just may save your life.