NextGen is Platform for Helicopter Flights

Highlights:
  • There are 5,000 — 9,000 helicopter operations in the Gulf of Mexico every day
  • Using NextGen technology, one helicopter company increased its flight hours during periods of low visibility from 1,500 to almost 20,000

Helicopter taking off from an oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico.

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Separation Management
Provides controllers with tools to manage aircraft in a mixed environment of varying navigation equipment and wake performance capabilities.

The Gulf of Mexico is the beautiful blue of postcards and pictures, but its 600,000 square miles can be tricky flying for even the most experienced pilot. A NextGen technology called ADS-B is helping helicopters reach offshore oil rigs in the worst kinds of weather, forecasts that would have left supplies and rig workers stuck back at the airport. For one helicopter operator, it has meant an increase in flight hours during periods of low visibility from 1,500 to almost 20,000.

Nearly 4,000 oil and natural gas platforms dot the choppy waters of the Gulf. The men and women who work on them depend heavily on helicopters for supplies and transportation.

Consider Christmas 2012: Pat Attaway eyed the miserable weather outside his company's operations center in Lafayette, La. As director of operations for PHI, a helicopter company that serves off-shore oil and natural gas platforms in the Gulf of Mexico, he was counting on NextGen capabilities to get crews home for the holidays.

PHI's helicopters fly to platforms 200 miles offshore in nearly 10,000 feet of water. In the past, when bad weather obstructed visibility in the Gulf and pilots had to navigate using onboard instruments — a situation that requires the use of instrument flight rules (IFR) — rather than visually avoiding other helicopters, the FAA required that each helicopter stay in its own 20 mile by 20 mile airspace grid. Or they were simply grounded — because no radars sit in the ocean.

This created problems because air traffic in the Gulf is nearly as busy as the heavily traveled East Coast corridor, with some 5,000 to 9,000 helicopter offshore platform operations every day.

But in 2009, the FAA debuted Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B), a NextGen technology, in the Gulf. In a joint agreement with the FAA, Helicopter Association International, helicopter operators and oil platform companies, the federal government installed ADS-B transmitters, along with weather observation and communications equipment, on 12 offshore platforms. And operators equipped their helicopters with ADS-B avionics.

Like radar, ADS-B pinpoints the location of helicopters and aircraft. FAA air traffic controllers now provide the same surveillance and air-to-ground communications to helicopters in the Gulf as they do for aircraft flying over land. And helicopters can use the same standard 5-mile separation distance when flying over the Gulf.

For Attaway on Christmas, with 32 helicopters flying, despite complex operations and tricky weather, every crew change happened on schedule and everyone made it home, "all because of ADS-B," he said.

"While ADS-B does help in fuel savings, the biggest benefit for us is schedule dependability," said Attaway, whose company transported more than a million passengers in 2012.

"It makes a huge difference to our customers when it comes to [offshore] crew changes, so it helps in our business development," he explained. "With ADS-B, I can operate like an airline."

PHI's performance numbers make the ADS-B story even more compelling. Before 2012, the average annual IFR flight hours: about 1,500. In 2012, IFR flight hours — all ADS-B: 19,942.