Safety & Training
Supporting the Oil Sands
By James Marasa
At the Edmonton offices of Canadian Helicopters, a broad map of the Athabasca oil sands sprawls along the wall.
By James Marasa
At the Edmonton offices of Canadian Helicopters, a broad map of the Athabasca oil sands sprawls along the wall. It’s not for decoration. Figures from the Alberta government claim oil reserves of some 171.3 billion barrels in the Athabasca region, supporting its claim as the third-largest crude oil reserve in the world.
|As part of its wide range of services nationwide, Canadian Helicopters is tapping the massive oil reserves of the Athabasca oil sands.
With 33 bases across Canada and one of the largest helicopter fleets in the world, Canadian Helicopters Group Inc. is Canada’s largest helicopter transportation services company. As part of a wide range of services offerings, Canadian Helicopters is tapping into Alberta’s oil boom by providing support to geophysical exploration programs in search of oil and gas across the Athabasca oil sands. Putting the unique capabilities of helicopters to work in a climate notorious for slinging special demands on air transport, pilots move seismic recording equipment, crews and drill rig components in all phases of oil sands exploration. Canadian Helicopters is also active in the planning, construction, and operational phases of oil and gas pipelines and provides standby operations for emergency response.
Craig Barraclough, Canadian Helicopters’ Fort McMurray base manager, was in town to walk me around the Edmonton facilities. As he did, a safety briefing, in which Barraclough explained how to exit the building in case of an emergency, came as a surprise. “It’s just what I’m used to,” he says when queried on the practice of briefing visitors. “It’s my background.” With a resumé crammed with some 20 years of experience, more than 4,000 flying hours and skills honed largely in his native Australia, Barraclough now heads Canadian Helicopters’ oil sands operations.
“It’s your standard bush-type flying,” Barraclough says in describing the work carried out from the Fort McMurray base. As standard as he claims the flying to be, Barraclough is as quick to extol the diversity of the work done in servicing the needs of the oil companies, as he is the company’s religious compliance to safety standards. “We do all kinds of IFR and VFR,” he says, adding that he still loves to take an active role in the flying. “There isn’t any type of flying I don’t enjoy.”
Attracting a breed of pilots who come from far afield in search of unique flying opportunities, Northern Alberta presents helicopters and their crews with a range of environmental challenges. Barraclough shakes his head and smiles as he reflects on the extreme cold and the challenge of keeping aircraft functioning well in temperatures that can drop below minus 40 degrees.
|Safety is a top priority in the oil and gas sector operators both large and small. Standards are continuously on the rise. (Photos courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)
For the fleet of A-Stars, Bell 412s and 206s, 2011 was a good year. While anywhere from three to 10 aircraft may be stationed at the Fort McMurray base depending on seasonal demand, Barraclough admits it has at times been tough for clients to book available aircraft. He explains that oil crew leaders will normally select the helicopter operator in the field as and when the need arises – the selection process is not necessarily vetted through an organized structure within the oil company. While preferred rate sheets are distributed to all the major players in oil sands, a key part of Barraclough’s job is to seek and maintain personal relationships with his passengers. “Most clients call up the day before looking for a helicopter,” he says. “They treat us almost as a taxi service.”
With clients investing such reliance in call-and-go service, the idea of a bush pilot receiving a call, loading up a helicopter, then flying under the weather to try to “get in” tends to linger in the mind of the public.
Barraclough is quick to point out that while such a romanticized image of bush flying may have been valid in the past, the times have changed. “Particularly in offshore flying,” he says, “Multinational oil and gas companies are holding their contracted air operators to a more prescriptive standard than Transport Canada (TC). That’s starting to trickle across to the on-shore community as well.”
“The potential repercussions are more severe,” adds Barraclough in reference to penalties imposed by TC and the consequent risk of lost business. “Most companies have consultants working for them and can dictate the pilot requirements and aircraft requirements for their crews to be flown around.”
| Delta Helicopters is a family-run business that has been operating in Alberta since 1972. (Photo courtesy of Delta Helicopters)
Such an elevated level of oversight has forced operators who are not willing to pay the price of compliance to become more specialized in the type of work they pursue. Barraclough stresses the effort Canadian Helicopters has put into arranging its fleet and range of services to meet client demands with the highest standards of compliance. “Some clients will only allow their crews to be flown in a twin-engine helicopter,” he says. “But the diversified business model of Canadian Helicopters allows us to meet such needs.”
While large operators are serving a significant proportion of the multinational oil and gas customers, a number of smaller operators are thriving as well. Paul Stubbs is the operations manager and a line pilot for Delta Helicopters, a family-run operation founded by his father, Don, in 1972. With several bases in Alberta and a fleet of more than 20 helicopters, Delta has been carving out a comfortable existence in the oil sands for almost four decades.
“We don’t do much different than we did back then,” Stubbs says. “We cater mostly to companies that don’t require twin-engine helicopters” meaning the company focuses mostly on survey, oil well servicing, and environmental work within the oil sands region. Contrary to the feast-or-famine, boom-bust cycles for which oil sands aviation has earned an infamous reputation, Stubbs affectionately refers to the work as “mundane,” adding that Delta Helicopter’s steady stream of business comes from a base of dedicated and long-term customers – a resource that Stubbs is quick to laud.
“We don’t chase exploration work [or] try to underbid other companies to win new contracts,” he says. Instead, Delta focuses on keeping happy the good customers that they already have. “We have the best customers in the world,” he says. “We [have been] flying some of the same clients for the last 40 years.” Stubbs goes on to say that just a few weeks earlier, he had, in the back of his helicopter, some of the same passengers he flew as base manager in High Level in 1991.
|Delta Helicopter’s steady stream of business comes from a base of dedicated and long-term customers, says operations manager/line pilot Paul Stubbs. (Photo courtesy of Delta Helicopters)
On the question of safety, Stubbs points out that the company follows the same intensive recurrent training procedures that would be expected of any operator. Interestingly, he also acknowledges a contribution to maintaining high levels of safety as coming from the long-term client base and the company’s understanding of how weather affects helicopter operations.
“They will call us up and tell us it doesn’t look like a good day to go flying; that they are driving instead,” he says. “They understand that flying in bad weather puts everyone at risk. This removes many of the external pressures on our pilots.”
The science of safe helicopter operations includes a fair measure of intuition. “We tell our pilots, ‘if it doesn’t feel right, don’t do it.’ We would sooner lose a million-dollar contract than lose a helicopter or a person. At the end of the day, we all have families to go back to.”
Stubbs jokes that as operations manager of a family business, he reports to the owners of the company every Easter, Christmas and Thanksgiving. A question of whether or not to take on additional risk to win a certain contract may often be resolved with a simple “don’t do it, son” from across the table. “We have walked away from jobs when the profit versus risk [margin] just didn’t make sense. We are in the fortunate position where we don’t have to chase every job.”
|Northern Alberta presents helicopters and their crews with a range of environmental challenges. (Photo courtesy of Canadian Helicopters)
At Canadian Helicopters, Barraclough says that he has begun to notice a greater awareness of safety standards among companies operating in the region. Unfortunately, he contends, most of these new standards have come about due to accidents, in applying what was learned during the subsequent investigations. And customers are taking note. “Clients have become much more aware of safety in regards to their own personnel,” he says. “They don’t just call up someone with an available helicopter and go flying.”
Barraclough has a similar attitude to safety to Delta Helicopters’ family-run operation, but sums it up in slightly different words. “They say you can’t put a price on safety, but risks need to be weighed against benefit or else no one would ever go flying.”
Risk can also be managed and mitigated, and it is in doing so that pilot experience becomes critical. Pilots need to accumulate at least 1,000 hours before becoming eligible for a chance to work at Canadian. The experience requirement is a tough hurdle for those wanting to break into the industry.
“It’s the classic catch-22 of aviation,” says Barraclough, “Young pilots need to find that break.” And despite the demand, Barraclough notes that first job is getting harder and harder to come by.
In an increasingly environmentally conscious world, the unique capabilities of helicopters allow the movement of people and equipment to take place with minimal impact on surrounding terrain. Looking forward, politically and environmentally stable oil supplies will without doubt continue to play a critical role in world economics. With no real easing in the price of oil in sight, emerging and growing economies, increasingly bolstered by and reliant on Canadian oil, will open up unique opportunities for helicopter operators.