Rotor & Wing International

Offshore Refueling, Part 1

We somewhat take for granted that our local FBO has done some type of quality assurance and not filled our tanks up with water rather than Jet A.

In a family sedan, you might pull into a gas station, stop at the fuel pump, pay and begin filling the old bus up with gas. Usually your attention is riveted on the LED money window until you can’t stand it any longer and replace the nozzle before going on your way.

That pretty well works for the four-wheel highway denizens. We can even say it works for some aviation refueling sites. At those locations, we somewhat take for granted that our local FBO has done some type of quality assurance and not filled our tanks up with water rather than Jet A.

In my career, I flew on aerial pipeline inspections and refueled hundreds of times between Corpus Christi, Texas, and Springfield, Massachusetts, then out west to Arizona, Nevada and back to Houston in a Cessna Caravan and a Bell Helicopter Jet Ranger. Thinking back, I will admit that I cannot ever recall questioning the quality of fuel I took on board at the FBOs. My thought process was based on the assumption that draining of the sumps was adequate prior to takeoff.

I flew Bolkows offshore with as many as five hot refuelings a day, seldom draining a sump. When I did, and a little water came out, I was alerted and would re-sump it until it cleared.

Flying operations over the Gulf of Mexico elevates one’s awareness that forced landings are limited to the ocean. In turn, barring catastrophic engine failure, you remember that the only way a jet engine is shut down is by cutting off the fuel supply. Fuel quality and quantity become much more relevant to the success of your mission.

The need for offshore refueling, and at times hot fueling, depends on the distance from the beach to the overwater destination. Frequent returns back to the beach adds up to many unproductive flight hours. Additionally, for the bigger ships doing long-range crew changes, it is impossible to have enough fuel for a return flight.

Offshore fuel management has become an upfront topic among operators flying in the Gulf. Safe procedures used in the process of refueling, the quality of the fuel and the condition of the equipment used in refueling are concerns.

On the Gulf Coast, various organizations including major oil companies, the FAA, U.S. Coast Guard, the Interior Dept. Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement, most major helicopter companies, the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference (HSAC), plus the Aviation Training Academy (which specializes in fuel handling training and works closely with the HSAC committees) have together formulated procedures and recommendations for best practices to assure that the mechanical process is done safely and that the quality of the fuel is paramount.

HSAC has been the lead organization in gathering information and making it available to all who fly helicopters offshore. It has two recommended refueling procedures: RP 2004-02, “Jet Fuel Quality Control Procedures,” and RP 94-1, “Helicopter Rapid Refueling (HRR).” These two documents lean heavily on FAA Advisory Circular AC 91-32B, “Safety Around Helicopters.” There appears to be no specific government regulation that addresses hot refueling of helicopters or any mention of controlling offshore refueling of helicopters. There are regulations pertaining to fuel handling at FAA-certified airports, especially where airline operations are conducted.

As with many circumstances surrounding accidents involving fuel as a cause, the investigating authorities will focus on whether industry standards were adhered. AC 91-32B will certainly be considered a standard, as will the HSAC RPs and any other entity that has published fuel standards. Ignoring these documents could lead to finger-pointing during an accident investigation.

Offshore refueling sites are scattered throughout the Gulf. Each site is made available by agreement with platform owners. Once an agreement is reached, setting up and maintaining these sites is an expensive process.

Most of the 3,000 or so platforms in the Gulf have helidecks that must remain clear of permanent obstacles. This means the fuel tanks, pumps and filtering systems have to be installed on the lower decks of the platform with the piping snaked vertically through various gratings and installed adjacent to the helideck. A connection is made to a hose reel and the refueling nozzle. Grounding cables and fire extinguishers are also stationed at this location. R&WI