Rotor & Wing International

Offshore Refueling, Part 2

There have been two refueling incidents that could have led to serious accidents worth noting.

There have been two refueling incidents that could have led to serious accidents worth noting.

During one, a helicopter pilot landed at a refueling platform and took on what he thought was a tank full of Jet-A. He attempted to start the helicopter unsuccessfully. After relaying the problem to a dispatcher, a maintenance aircraft with two mechanics arrived and refueled. The maintenance pilot was unable to start that helicopter. Inspection of the refueling system showed the tank was filled with an unknown chemical.

In a second incident, a person was fueling a helicopter when the flow began to slow down, then picked back up, again and again. Thinking the pressure was too low, the refueler increased the pressure at the pump, then continued to refuel the aircraft. Everything seemed normal until the flow decreased again. Inspection of the nozzle revealed white fibrous material in the screen, so he removed it to increase the flow. When done, the pilot made a normal take off and at about 300 feet had an engine failure before landing in the ocean. Later inspection revealed a blown filter that delivered a mass of fibers into the helicopter fuel tank due to an over-pressurized system.

In the early 1960s, turbine engines first began showing up in various industrial applications. There were media reports about the benefits of these engines, one being they could run on any type of fuel, including vegetable oil. I doubt they were referring to aircraft engines. Manufacturers of aviation engines are very particular about the fuel their engines need. They can spell out the fuel requirements in pilot handbooks and maintenance manuals, but there is always some question about who is responsible for the quality of the product as it goes through the process from refining to the aircraft fuel cell.

For normal on-land fuel handling, the jet fuel comes from the refinery to a distributor then to the final user, usually an FBO or airline. Offshore fuel has some added stops along the way. Portable fuel tanks with capacities of 250 to 500 gallons are used. These tanks are commonly referred to as “totes.” Once filled, the totes are delivered to a port and shipped via work boat to its final offshore platform or drill ship in the Gulf of Mexico, where it is connected to a dispensing system. Once supplied, generally it is up to the facility operator to maintain quality-control measures while in storage and as it runs through the refueling nozzle and into the helicopter fuel cell. I should mention that these fuel systems are exposed to elements of the ocean.

In an attempt to establish quality control of refueling systems and methods offshore, the Helicopter Safety Advisory Conference researched industry best practices and procedures and applicable references, then consolidated the material into a recommended practice, RP 2004-02. Nine different publications relating to fuel handling were used to construct this document that includes oil and gas producers and Transportation Dept. safety regulations. It outlines procedures and responsibilities for fuel systems operation and an inspection log covering fuel tanks, pumps, filters, dispensing units, hoses, fuel nozzles, fuel sampling, firefighting, quality control and records. The 5-page log is comprised of 82 inspections and actions. Needless to say, offshore refueling is serious business. This RP, or at least aspects of it, is or should be a part of operations manuals for all offshore helicopter operators.

Though we have a blueprint for preventing accidental contamination, along with safety procedures, there are other areas that might need help, like standardization of the units themselves. Very seldom do you find two alike units. Standardization among personnel training and one-source parts availability and maintenance procedures could prove beneficial.

One company that has put together a totally stainless-steel modular system is Florida’s Bravo Zulu Fueling System. Walter P. Chartrand, spokesman for the company, envisions supplying all offshore refueling locations with a skid-mounted, stainless-steel, self-contained pumping unit that replaces the totes with DNV tanks. (DNV describes a tank that is approved to a high standard of safety and quality.) The company would replace the existing non-industry standard units via a lease arrangement with modular systems that have modern fail-safe technology. Such a system could raise the bar for quality control and eliminate one more bookkeeping headache for operators. RWI