This is one I’ve been meaning to write since I started flying off-shore. It’s a topic I get questions about from time to time, and one that is worth mentioning. What is the weather like in the Gulf? How do you plan, fly, and work with it? Now that may seem like a ridiculous question to some of the old dogs of aviation, those long in the tooth greying, bitter old bastards that have heli-bellies and retirement on the horizon – but for the younger up and coming generation of pilots these are the things that they are thinking about, asking about and interested in. So I’ll take a stab at it.
I’ve flown in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest, I’ve flown in the Grand Canyon, on the West and East Coasts, in the South Pacific from Fiji to Indonesia and in the middle of the ocean. I’ve even flown in the Middle East. In terms of weather I would say that the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska present the most unique and interesting weather environments to fly in. Since I’m currently flying in the Gulf of Mexico out of Louisiana however, I’ll focus here. If you’ve got anything to add however please comment below, or use the contact form to message me.
Something new I’m going to be trying is having guest bloggers write about their experiences too – so if you’re interested in that, please reach out. I’d love to hear your stories.
Would I say that the weather in the Gulf of Mexico is the most challenging I’ve flown in? Yes. The weather here, most days, is unremarkable, unimpressive, stifling, and just down-right disgusting. Humidity through the roof, heat through the roof, wind non-existent. Clear, blue, days. Those days don’t really warrant mentioning outside of the fact that when you’re flying a fully loaded L-4 off of a platform on a hot summer day you had better be thinking about power management, and whether or not you really want to dive off the side of a 100′ high deck to build airspeed.
The weather days that really make you break out those “pilot skills” are the days with thunderstorms, rain showers, fog, haze, lightning, waterspouts, and highwinds. Anybody can strap a monkey into a cockpit and have it fly straight and level on a clear nice day. We earn our paychecks by being able to 1-up the monkey on those not so nice days. Weather in the Gulf is unlike anything I’ve experienced in that it is so clearly defined at times. It will form in an instant and you’ll be able to discern layers and shelves and complexities in the clouds that you don’t see where I’m from. One of the other pilots out here mused in conversation one day that perhaps it was due to the fact that Louisiana is so ridiculously flat, with no real terrain features to break up the fronts.
In the winter time it can get so cold that the deck will freeze over with ice, and ocean fog will form and roll as thick as clouds – but underneath the walkways. On one flight this past winter I could see a solid layer of sea fog had enveloped the field I was flying to all the way up to, however just below, the helidecks. There was a smattering of places to land atop a dense, white, impenetrable, layer of fog. I radioed the platform dispatcher and told him “I can’t continue into the field or land here, I won’t be able to see the surface through that.”
“Are you sure? It looks fine here.” he radioed back on the marine FM radio.
I was just about to reply when one of the downfield operators, on one of the obscured platforms, jumped into our conversation and said “Nick, do not come here. We can’t even see the hand railings.”
The fog was so thick they had executed a “stop work” authority and shut down their work for the time being until it could clear. “Stop work” is an authority recognized on every facility by every company across the Gulf and it gives anybody from the cook to the pilot the authority to stop work if they feel unsafe.
Fog can materialize rapidly, and while you’re flying over the ocean, or Vermillion Bay, that can rapidly get you into a flat light situation where all reference to the horizon is lost. Rain can go from light to heavy in the blink of an eye and that too, can reduce your visibility to near zero. Waterspouts, which I had never heard of until I got out here, are essentially tornadoes – over water. They’re easily identified by the funnel cloud that forms and the swirling mess of water at the surface. Though they don’t always contact the surface – they will always cause a swirling, choppy, disturbance.
Given all of the weather events we could experience out here on a day anything short of perfect out, one might wonder how we get any flying done at all. The reality of it is that most of the operators out here have a 3sm visibilty and 500′ ceiling minimum for operations. We also have wind restrictions, and weather related restrictions for things such as squall lines and hurricanes. Rules and policies on top of rules and policies. This is not to say that the pilot doesn’t play a part, in fact we provide a critical element to the operational control process – Pilot Reports.
Mornings, on most days, consist of pilots pre-flighting their aircraft and then pouring cups of coffee and digging into the weather reports, forecasts, PIREPS, and outlooks. Older more veteran pilots will offer their two cents on the conditions, and each pilot is then left to make their own “personal minimums” decision on whether or not they are going to fly. This sort of collaborative effort really takes a lot of the burden of making weather calls off of your individual shoulders, as you’re able to really benefit from the guidance of pilots that have been out here for a long time and have seen these conditions every year. It’s like working with mentors, because that’s what they’re doing – whether they intend to or not.
We’re always prepared to tie down the helicopter however, especially if things take a turn for the worst off-shore. Some aircraft are equipped with weather radar, others xm weather, our comm centers relay back advisory information only, such as size, intensity, track, and lightning reports for big cells. Deviating to get around weather is a regular thing to do, and sometimes there’s no amount of deviating that will get you to your destination – you’ve got to be able to think quick, analyze, and put into actions sometimes “on the fly” to use a pun.
I have two stories along these lines.
On the first occasion I was flying a loop contract (big loop, lots of platforms) and was in the process of “cleaning up the field” as weather was moving in. Conditions had been deteriorating steadily to the point that I finally made the call for the oil operators and told them “either I pick you up now, or you sleep on that unmanned platform.” Nobody wants to sleep on an unmanned platform, so they elected to take my advice. The platforms they were on happened to be South East of the main platform we were based off of, picking them up wasn’t a problem, however, as I turned back toward the North West a large bank of fog and haze had begun to form up ahead of the storm and was heading straight towards out platform. So I deviated North. And then North East. Then back to the North. And then I was able to head West, briefly. I was flying the edge of this wall of weather gradually moving toward our platform and it had appeared to have “stalled out” just South of where we needed to go – I made the call to head toward our platform. The ceiling and visibility were good, the rain was light – we can get in, tie down, and call it a night. 5 miles, platform still visible as clear as ever. 4 miles. 3 miles. 2 miles. And it was at that moment, only a mile away from the platform that the whole thing vanished into a wall of fog that had been moving slowly the entire time. So thick that once it had enveloped the platform all that was left to do – in a snap decision – was to reverse course 180º and continue North. I told the passengers there was no way to get them to their platform that night and flew them to the shore.
On the second occasion I was flying in from out deep in the Vermillion field, a thunderstorm was approaching from the West and fortunately the workers were all wrapped up with what they needed to do. Unfortunately we we were so far out in deep water that it was going to be a long flight to get back into our platform. I deviated East. And again East. And again East. The storm was pushing me further and further away from where I wanted to go until there was no chance I would be able to make it to the platform. Underneath the well developed lip of the storm waterspouts (multiple) were twisting around, rain was falling, and lightning was striking the surface of the ocean. It was a cauldron of terrible weather. I was very well familiar with the field I was flying through at the time, and that helped me make what I feel was the best decision. I knew I was a stones throw away from another customers manned platform (as I flew their crew change every other week) and promptly set my course for them. It would take me well away from the storm, and provide a safe place to tie down and ride things out. In the event it was so bad we were going to have to remain over night, the conditions would greatly win out over a tool shed on an unmanned platform. We made it to my new objective platform with time to spare. Not much time, but some time to spare. Once the blades were stopped and everything was tied down the rain was starting to fall and that same monster of a storm had caught up to us. We spent the next 5 hours there while the storm blew over top of us.
The moral of the story? What is all of this meant to pass on in the way of knowledge. Be prepared. Read your weather reports, and understand them and how to use other weather products. Accept mentorship from your elders (or more experienced pilots). Always have a plan. Be willing to land and tie down, even on an unmanned platform and ride out the weather. And most importantly of all – be the pilot IN COMMAND. It’s up to you to make the calls that need to be made out there, not ops, not the Chief Pilot or DO. You. When you add passengers into the mix the weight on your shoulders goes up – but that’s what we train for, that’s who we are. Being a pilot requires the gall to make those calls and to not be bullied into compromising yourself.
Customers are all about the oil. Getting people in and out to platforms to get more oil. On their break-day (when they go home from their hitch) they’ll bold-faced lie to you about weather conditions if they think it means they’ll manage to get a helicopter out to take them home. They’ll say things, especially to new pilots like “our last pilot used to fly in this all the time” to try and get you to go. You’re the PIC, you’re the boss when it comes to that aircraft and weather calls and whomever you’re flying for, be it Bristow, PHI, RLC, whomever – they will back you up 10 times out of 10 if you make a call and can back it up with a ‘why’ – even if it may not have been the right call, if you can explain your thought process and WHY you made that call, they’ll have your back.
One last story, as this is getting long. The above two stories ended with me in a happy place. The first one I flew back in nice clear weather to the beach and landed at my base. My room was there, food, a lounge – it was great. In my second story I made it to a fully stocked manned platform with satellite tv (that went out during the storm) and internet (also went out) and great recliners to nap in. You don’t always get to go to someplace cozy, sometimes you have to ride it out.
We were on a platform, shutdown, one day when I had to take shelter in a tool shed for a couple of hours. The guys had a lot of work to do, and though I kept updating them about the incoming weather – there was no leaving. It finally reached a point where I knew there was no going anywhere, so I tied the helicopter down, grabbed my lunch and went down to the tool shed and settled in. The shed had a leaky roof, and drafted terribly. Lightning struck several times just beyond the platform – though we couldn’t see it through the fog. Fortunately we were shallow enough that I had service on my phone, I could see the thunder-cell on radar, and knew it would pass. But it sure was miserable while waiting for it to do so. Sometimes you just have to ride out the storm.