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Australian SAR

gets fueled by oil & gas

Introduction

SAR operations in Northern Australia are getting a boost from an oil & gas industry increasingly interested in serving the local community.

By Heather Couthaud


Night was falling when Rescue 625 made contact with the fishing boat stranded off the coast of northern Australia. The vessel had been drifting since morning, when its engine ran out of fuel. Local residents awaiting their return reported the five men missing, prompting the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA) to solicit search and rescue services in the area.

AMSA’s call was picked up by the operations staff at Broome International Airport, where CHC Helicopter operates H225 (formerly the EC225) helicopters for Shell Australia’s oil and gas operations off the northern coast of the continent. Among their aircraft is Rescue 625, a service-built H225 designated for search and rescue (SAR) and Medevac missions.

“Shell is an active member of the local community here. And they’d like to see their helicopters serving the people whenever possible,” said Mick O’Grady, Senior Base Pilot for CHC stationed in Broome, Australia. In recent years, oil and gas companies have been venturing more formally into search and rescue, providing Medevac and SAR services not only for their staff located offshore but for local communities as well.

Shell launched its dedicated SAR service last July with operator CHC for the Kimberley region in northern Australia. Such rescue services have grown up around populations in remote environments, where harsh conditions make conventional rescue work untenable, and where isolated communities welcome the additional resources.

“Rescue 625 is one of the few aircraft that can actually travel up to 500 nautical miles, round-trip. That makes a difference during rescue operations in this part of the world.”


Mick O’Grady, Senior Base Pilot for CHC

With its speed, longer operating range and payload among the best in the industry, the H225 has proven particularly well-suited for these missions. “Rescue 625 is one of the few aircraft that can actually travel up to 500 nautical miles (NM), round-trip. That makes a difference during rescue operations in this part of the world,” said O’Grady.

When AMSA called in its request for help, Broome operations staff contacted Shell’s and CHC’s head offices for approval to release the aircraft. The crew of Rescue 625 were leaving on a training sortie when the go-ahead came. “As soon as they tell us there’s a mission that may be approved, we start preparing to launch,” said O’Grady. “With that one, they were lucky because we were already getting airborne.”

He described finding the men fairly quickly using the equipment on board the H225. One indispensable asset, he said, was the aircraft’s forward looking infrared (FLIR), which allowed the pilots to detect the survivors’ heat signatures in the moonless night. Said O’Grady, “FLIR enabled us to determine which contacts were not the fishing vessel, so we could rule those out quickly. And by the same token, to identify them when we did.”

In its rescue configuration, the helicopter carries a hoist operator, who is CHC staff, and two contract paramedics. In addition, acute-care paramedics serve as rescue crewman and swimmer, descending on the hoist in the event of a winching. Two pilots complete the crew. The H225 is fitted with FLIR and night vision goggles (NVG), a Trakka searchlight, auto hover capabilities, and a Spectrum aero stretcher mounted to the aircraft that includes power supplies and equipment such as suction and oxygen.

After ensuring that the fishermen suffered no distress, Rescue 625 maintained visual contact with the boat for the next hour until the crew was relieved by a fixed-wing airplane, allowing the H225 to refuel at Djarindjin airport. When they returned to the vessel, the fishing craft was already under tow by a police boat. Rescue 625 followed them in until the boats were in sheltered waters.

Only a month after the fishermen’s return, Rescue 625 was dispatched on another Medevac mission to Ashmore Reef in the Timor Sea. The H225’s crew flew nearly two hours to Shell’s Noble Clyde Bordeaux oil rig, where they refueled before flying another 84 NM to pick up a customs officer in distress. They returned to Broome over six hours later, after transporting the patient to medical services.

“There is a need,” asserted O’Grady, recounting that on the night Rescue 625 transported the customs officer, a second helicopter was tasked with a different Medevac mission in another area, while a separate emergency the night before had been called in and then cancelled.

Oil and gas companies are particularly able to fund these services for the community, or to offer the service for those who sign up for it.

“We were able to search the area effectively and to identify the men. If we hadn’t had the night technology, it would’ve been a very difficult job.”


Mick O’Grady, Senior Base Pilot for CHC

One advantage is that the designated aircraft are equipped with the latest technology. An example was the rescue of the five fishermen. According to O’Grady, “We were able to search the area effectively and to identify the men. If we hadn’t had the night technology, it would’ve been a very difficult job.”

For now, the community has only had need of Rescue 625 six or seven times. But, says O’Grady, “the rescue coordination center is still getting used to the fact that we are here and what our capabilities are. We figure that as time goes on, they’ll use us more.”