BSEE: Even low levels of combustible gas threaten offshore copters

Mounting evidence suggests exposure to low levels of methane and other combustible gases can be catastrophic for helicopters traveling to and from offshore platforms, warned an official with the US Bureau of Safety and Environmental Enforcement.

“We have been out sending alerts on the issue of aviation safety and methane releases for some time, but we are now concerned that even low levels of gases can be extremely dangerous,” BSEE Offshore Regulatory Programs Chief Doug Morris said. “The intake of a highly combustible gas can result in a sudden change in helicopter engine performance.”

Morris cited a 2015 BSEE-supported study in collaboration with PricewaterhouseCoopers that found the presence of methane gas may cause power loss in turbo-shaft engines at much lower concentrations than originally estimated. The study identified mechanisms by which methane ingestion can cause sudden and significant degradation of turbo-shaft engine performance, he said.

Prior recommendations from the National Transportation Safety Board and experts from many parts of affected industries also point to the dangers of helicopter flights in areas where combustible gases may be present. “This issue impacts both offshore oil workers and BSEE’s own personnel,” Morris noted, adding that BSEE staff members log more than 9,000 flight hr each year during inspection and investigation activities.

The US Department of the Interior agency is evaluating options for future research and applications of technology that may reduce the risk of exposure to combustible gas by helicopters operating on the US Outer Continental Shelf, Morris said. The report is undergoing peer review, and BSEE is accepting additional comments on it.

Contact Nick Snow at nicks@pennwell.com.

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