A hop to Solaris

(A helicopter flight to the Hśwene Brim)

December 2009

For work I sometimes have to fly jump-seat in other aircraft than my glider, in this case a 19-passenger EC-225 "Super Puma". I cannot avoid also looking out the cockpit windows to look at the sky. The following narrative is the non-technical and subjective part of that flight.

G-ZZSC Bristow Eurocopter EC-225 Super Puma "Sierra Charlie" (photo by Mark McEwan / airliners.net).

The captain was Nick Norman, who introduced me to slope soaring a few months before. We were heading for a ship moored smack in the center of the North Sea, just at the border with Norwegian waters.

HaeweneBrimMap_web.jpg Speck N57 deg 09.68 min, E002 deg 17.68 min (www.sailwx.info).

In the end it is probably the closest I'll ever get to flying to a base on a distant planet, especially a liquid one.

Aberdeen Airport

Aberdeen is the busiest heliport not only in Scotland but in the world (35,000 movements/year) and there are several large private terminals dedicated to helicopter operations. With Yankee-French visions of big-biceps loud-mouth rig workers used to fighting gushing oil fires in Texas, entering the Bristow waiting lounge, I was stunned to discover hundreds of slight grey-clad men, sitting quietly, row after row. No leather jackets, but soft-sole shoes and sport bags, no unnecessary movements (or maybe they had remnants of hangovers from the night before). No really happy faces, probably because they too, they had to get up at 5 AM to be there.

There were a few women. I was told that on Norwegian oil rigs, the majority of workers are actually women, and the first thing you notice approaching to landing are fluorescent-clad figures with long blond hair floating in the wind. No doubt that the oil pumped on the Norwegian side is of better quality too.

Survival suit

After watching a lengthy safety video, I had to wear the survival immersion suit. There are 3 parts to it. First, you have to squeeze in some kind of blue polar-fleece that makes one look like a "baigneur" on the beach of Boulogne in 1900. Being too tall I needed help to close the zipper. Then you have to intricate yourself into a one-piece yellow drysuit, with 2-inch wide black rubber seals around wrists, ankles, and worse, neck. Imagine sliding yourself into a shorty Ziploc bag. Impossible to have enough freedom of movement for my arms, I had to request help again, but by then I was totally drenched in sweat, with foggy glasses that made all the lights around me look like christmas tree candles with iridescent halos. Of course I could not reach my handkerchief to wipe them.

The suit has a neat little transparent canopy you can pull over your face so that the spray does not get to you when you are bobbing in the waves waiting for rescue. Having swam for miles in the Mediterranean, I know that the limiting factor is not fatigue or cramps, but just salt in mouth and eyes. The North Sea is colder and less salty, but still, it is a nice touch.

Finally, you have to strap on a serious inflatable life jacket, with the emergency radio, the strobe you are to relocate to your head, and the whistle. I did not find the James Bondish 5-minute scuba breather shown in the video. Ditched helicopters do not stay upright for long, so you are supposed to swim your way out. (That same week, a Super Puma ditched off Nigeria; all evacuated safely). Actually, there was a fourth item on top of that, a fluorescent jacket. The UK seems more advanced relative to the US for safety clothing. You do get fined for not wearing it on airport grounds.

Once in the 225, I had to fold myself on the jump seat between the circuit breakers and hydraulics bulkheads. It took more than 5 minutes to do so by the time I was strapped in, so I was pretty much committed at this point (and wondering how long it would take to swim out of there...).

Flash snafu

Apart from taking written notes, I was also taking pictures, and I was told expressly never to use the flash, no good anyway to document modern glass displays. I disabled it on my camera, unfamiliar because it was in fact my daughter's camera (no excuse), but I mistakenly selected "Night Portrait" instead of "Night Landscape" so it did unknowingly reactivate it. Sure enough the flash triggered at the next pic. The response of the pilots was firm and polite but I still now feel like a total "dullard". Why such a fuss? It turns out that oil rigs are littered with explosion detectors that automatically shut everything down, then pour down thousands of gallons of seawater all over. I am glad this happened before reaching destination. I got away with a few passengers startled by the bright light, at least those that were still awake, but it is typical of how small things can have big consequences.


After taking off, we head East towards the clear but practically pitch black above the sea. Midway there was a micro front, starting with two ledges of clouds. I could see some white ice accumulating on the windshield wipers (the pilot has a special gauge for it, but it was out of my field of view), so we climbed up to 7,500 feet to be squarely above the clouds, and saw the sunrise.

P1030216_web.jpg Sun about to rise above the top layer.

I know that many captains of ships all around the world, even if it is not their watch, come on deck to see the sun rise; I would be one of them. Most of the Eastbound transatlantic flights take place at night and all see the sun rise; it is the only thing that would redeem an otherwise pretty boring stretch of 8 hours looking at time and fuel. Sunsets are very good for beaches and piŮa coladas; sunrises are more primal, especially at sea or in the sky; they are the real deal.

Descent and Approach

Descending through the clouds reminded me of that approach sequence in "2001, A Space Odyssey". The weak sun appeared between two layers of clouds like we were on a different planet, back-illuminating the bottom of the layer above and the top of the layer below, with weird shadows in the cockpit. Only the instruments tell you where you are, in nice sharp colors. The ship has even permanent waypoint "HBRIM" in the FMS (Flight Management System, the box that does all the navigation for you).

P1030221_web.jpg The red blob on radar is the ship, 5 miles out, within the wave clutter.

Water streams on the windshield from a lower wet cloud, then you break out above a grey sea, and your attention is caught by a flame in the distance: the Hśwene Brim.

Flying the 225 is "easy" (when everything works), because it is designed to be driven by the autopilot all the time, except for take-off and landing. Landing on a ship at sea like the Hśwene Brim is where the pilots do earn their salary. In some semi-circular manual approach bleeding altitude and airspeed as per strict schedule, you have to pass just next to the huge flame at the top of the flarestack, crab in to avoid the chimneys and the row of satellite antennas, and touch down in a diameter smaller than the length of the helicopter. The helipad is on the nose of the ship (that always points into the wind), meaning that on a windy gusty day, the tail that you don't see from the cockpit could get pretty close to the obstructions.

P1030223_web.jpg Finally in sight, approaching at 100 knots at 500 feet

P1030224_web.jpg Looks like a Liberty Ship, but 10 times bigger.

P1030225_web.jpg For us the flarestack is on the wrong side of the ship.

P1030226_web.jpg At this point you wonder "is this a good idea?"

P1030227_web.jpg Close enough to the flarestack that you'd get a sunburn.

P1030229_web.jpg Chimney and antennas are the last obstacles before reaching the green circle.

P1030230_web.jpg Settled on helideck, with the rotor fully revved up; notice Nick keeping hand on cyclic.

This ship is landable up to 5 m (15 ft) heave and +/-3 degrees of roll. Since the roll is about the center of buoyancy, the high-up helideck would not just tilt with the waves, but swing several feet laterally as you land....

The Hśwene Brim

The Hśwene Brim (ex Berge Hugin) is a "FPSO" operated by Bluewater for Shell, 253 m (830 ft) long and 100,000 deadweight tons. It is called the "Pea Green Oil Machine" (www.peagreenoilmachine.com) by its crew, and it is an impressive machine: 600,000 barrels of warmed-up oil with a big open flame on top....

HaeweneBrim1_web.jpg It is a heavily modified shuttle tanker.(www.bluewater.com)

HaeweneBrim2_web.jpg The helideck is way up on the hull (www.bluewater.com)

It is moored by an intriguing under-hull buoy, feedthrough for 6 pipelines and 2 injectors to the Pierce oil and gas field.

BergeHugin1_web.jpg Anchored 85 m (280 feet) above sea floor (www.offshore-technology.com).

BergeHugin2_web.jpg The ship can swing freely around the float (www.offshore-technology.com).

BergeHugin3_web.jpg The float sinks 120 feet for docking-undocking operations (www.offshore-technology.com).

The fact that you can inject large flows of gas or water at 360 bar (5200 PSI) through a swiveling head is mind-boggling. With only 50 normal crew for such a large complex ship, most operations must be very automated and powerful. Its generators can provide a whopping 20 MegaWatts.

Also, the water-gas-oil separation is efficient enough that less than 30 parts per million is rejected to the sea. There was not a hint of oil on the surface of the sea against the rising sun.

Return Leg

The helicopter remains on the ship just enough to offload the passengers and pick up new ones, while slurping a coffee (that I managed NOT to spill on the FMS, an acomplishment), that is 5-10 minutes tops.

The sky got clearer and clearer flying back West. When crossing the shoreline I realized how close this flight was to a space flight; the suit, the cramped quarters, the seemingly nice but hostile sea, the complexity of the aircraft, the hypertechnology of the base-ship, the strictly utilitarian environment, and the isolation of being beyond Aberdeen radar range. Only the noise would be out of character.

P1030238_web.jpg Making land at the Ythan estuary, pedal to the metal.

P1030247_web.jpg Last valley fog burning in the sun, about to intercept ILS.

P1030250_web.jpg Approach to Runway 16, faster than a Boeing 737.

Overall, the A to Z operation was amazingly fluid and efficient. It has to be, though. After a long walk from downtown there is a little park in Aberdeen Harbor, the closest you are to the sea, next to a futuristic landmark harbor control tower. I noticed flowers taped to the public benches, some old, some awfully new. Each had to represent someone who died at sea on some oil rig. There were many, of those flowers. I did not sit down; I looked out to the sea and thought of the 50 distant souls of the Hśwene Brim.

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