Embarking on a new helicopter service into the Timor Sea oil and gas fields at the height of the tropical wet season, with new aircraft operating from a new base, is not ideal.
But, despite heavy rains, strong winds and the threat of cyclones, the initial performance of its five-year contract with petroleum giant ConocoPhillips has exceeded expectations for the Babcock International Group.
David Ruff, chief executive of Babcock Australasia, says this year’s start of its operation from Dili, East Timor, using two Airbus H175 helicopters, has exceeded expectations.
The H175s, the first of their type in Australia, and worth about $20 million each, have beaten their Airbus specifications in such key areas as operating performance, speed and smoothness of ride.
“The aircraft have been superb,” Ruff says.
“We put a lot of effort into making sure we started on time and it went off better than we hoped. There have been absolutely no glitches in the operation.”
Babcock Offshore Services Australasia launched the operation on January 1 this year, replacing CHC Helicopters as provider of helicopter services to ConocoPhillips and its partners in the production and further development of the Bayu-Undan fields.
The choice of the two-pilot, 16-passenger, long-range H175 was made by ConocoPhillips after an exhaustive investigation of suitable types, with advantages including enhanced safety, simplified maintenance, versatility and cost effectiveness.
There also was the performance evidence from demanding operations in the North Sea oil and gas fields, where most of the 18 offshore versions are employed.
As a result, the H175 was specifically written into the tender process for the Bayu-Undan contract, which includes search and rescue and medevac roles – already undertaken on several emergency flights – as well as the main task of ferrying workers to and from the offshore complex, about 250 kilometres from Dili.
As winner of the contract in April last year, Babcock procured two new H175s, which were unveiled at the British-owned engineering services company’s $11 million Darwin hub on December 14 last year, after being assembled there by Babcock engineers.
The company sent eight engineers to Airbus for airframe and engine maintenance training and four engineers undertook avionics training as well.
Ruff says the contract involved starting from scratch to build a new operations base in Dili and refurbishing old hangars to provide new check-in and security facilities.
To operate the contract, Babcock has 18 expatriate pilots and seven engineers based in Dili, a number which is increasing as ConocoPhillips and its partners begin a new drilling program this month (April) to seek additional gas reserves for the group’s Darwin LNG plant.
The plant, which produces 3.7 million tonnes of LNG annually, is fed by a 500km pipeline from Bayu-Undan’s production facility. The drilling program represents the third phase of field development, with the first having begun in 2004 and the second, involving production and accommodation platforms, and a floating facility for condensate storage and shipment, in 2006.
As well as the two H175s, the expanded work will employ two Sikorsky S-92s, relocated to Dili after being used to support a recently completed, successful drilling program on the Barossa prospect, 300km north of Darwin. Barossa partner Santos has estimated reserves in this Timor Sea field at 4.3 trillion cubic feet of gas, sufficient to feed the Darwin LNG plant for 20 years after Bayu-Undan reserves are exhausted.
Babcock employs 22 Timorese at its new base, and has moved to increase the local workforce by training four Timorese airframe and engine maintenance engineers, who have been sent to Airbus in France, and selecting two Timorese to train as helicopter pilots at Flight Training Adelaide at South Australia’s Parafield Airport.
The company says it’s important to employ locally and provide skills for Timorese, to assist the country’s development, as well as helping to support the longevity of the Babcock contract.
“It is Babcock’s business model that, wherever we operate, we seek to minimise expatriate and maximise local employment,” Ruff says.
In East Timor’s case, it was necessary to have a strong expatriate presence to launch the ConocoPhillips contract – and the team worked through the Christmas-New Year holidays to ensure full readiness for the January 1 start.
Ruff says Babcock will “import our know-how” to build local skills and establish a strong “local footprint” for the company and the East Timor community.
Babcock’s local emphasis complements ConocoPhillips, which has long-standing local employment, training and community investment programs since establishing its office in Dili in 2006.
In the Adelaide operations centre, which controls the company’s 32 machines throughout the region, we watch a screen with real-time views of all the company’s services operating in the Australian region.
A Sikorsky S-92 from the Truscott base is preparing to land on the Montara platform of Thailand’s national petroleum group PTTEP, which produces oil and gas from fields about 650km west of Darwin.
Meanwhile, both H175s are heading back to Dili from Bayu-Undan on 90-minute flights at a bit above 150kt and one is a little off-track.
“Skirting around some bad weather,’’ a controller decides.
However, apart from some minor teething problems, launching in the wet season has produced no operational issues and Babcock has maintained an average of two return flights a day, three or four days a week, to the offshore platforms without incident.
“The wet season is notoriously challenging for all helicopter operations,” says Nick Clarke, Babcock’s head of engineering. “But the H175 has performed flawlessly.”
The operation has been assisted by the latest technology aboard the H175, including a new autopilot system designed specifically for the helicopter, and the aircraft management computers have been purpose-built with multiple backup systems in case of failure, Clarke says. The system will soon be standard for all Airbus helicopters.
The Helionix avionics package is the most advanced in civil use, he adds.
“It dramatically reduces pilot workload by providing information on all the aircraft systems at a glance.”
The seven-tonne “super-medium” helicopter made its first flight as the Eurocopter EC175 in December 2009. It was relabelled the H175 after the name change to Airbus Helicopters in July 2013 and a year ahead of commercial production.
The first offshore version began service in the North Sea oil and gas fields in December 2014 and the type has enjoyed good sales in various versions. In a recent presentation, Airbus said 22 H175s were in service in seven countries, including 18 on offshore duties with 12 oil companies.
In the past year, Airbus delivered 11 and received orders for 19 H175s, taking total orders to about 100, mostly for offshore work, it said.
Apart from its petroleum industry role, Airbus has configurations for search and rescue, emergency medical services and law enforcement, as well as private and business aviation.
The 7,800kg MTOW helicopter’s specifications include a cruising speed of about 160kt, a service ceiling of 18,000ft and a range of 200nm with 12 passengers.
The range, on normal fuel tanks, is a singular advantage, especially for major medevacs from East Timor to Australia, and for ferrying back to Darwin when necessary.
The H175s and the S-92s undergo general maintenance in Dili, but heavy maintenance will be done at the Darwin base.
Babcock’s Australian helicopter operations were formed from the US$1.5 billion acquisition of the Avincis Group by Babcock International in May 2014.
The deal encompassed Australian Helicopters, with 21 helicopters flying from eight bases on a range of contracts, from air ambulances to police and surveillance work, and the offshore petroleum industry services of Bond Helicopters.
Apart from the ConocoPhillips contract for the Timor Sea, Babcock Offshore Services Australasia counts international petroleum major Chevron, Australia’s Woodside Petroleum, Italy’s Eni, Thailand’s PTTEP and Japan’s Inpex among its clients.
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