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The deadly Covid-19 outbreak has brought about a “complete one-eighty” for North Sea helicopter operators and changed the lives of pilots – as well as their families.
Steve Jones, deputy chief pilot at CHC, described the situation as “very dynamic”, with “constant” updates coming through from health and aviation authorities.
Mr Jones’ working hours skyrocketed as he tried to get his head around the various directives and their implications for his team of 70 aircrew.
Helicopter pilots are the bus – or taxi drivers – of the North Sea. If they down tools, the whole show stops pretty quickly.
And so, Mr Jones needs to be in work, or at least on the end of a phone, to answer people’s questions.
It’s fair to say Mr Jones has learned to roll with the punches since moving to the north-east in 2014, after 26 years in the military, which included a spell serving in Afghanistan.
The downturn had just kicked in and he didn’t even get to start his new job. He worked for the air ambulance service for a period, before securing a job at CHC two years ago.
Now he’s got to contend with the Covid-19 outbreak, which hasn’t left his family life untouched.
“My wife had to close her business, but she’s keeping busy,” he said. “Coronavirus has changed everyone’s life. We do not go out as often. Where we live near Turriff is quite rural, so we can walk around the land where we live. I tend to travel in uniform a lot more than I used to so that I don’t get pulled over by the police on the way to work.”
Recalling the first few days after it became clear that Covid-19 was going to impact North Sea workers, Mr Jones said: “There were lots of questions. Right from the start it was really busy. It was go, go, go. We put in a lot of time.
“It has been a complete one-eighty from what we do normally. It wasn’t this busy in the military in Afghanistan.”
CHC has gone from being in a position where it had no issues filling its aircraft to one where it is reducing passenger numbers for social distancing purposes.
Passengers are having their temperatures taken before they enter the heliport in Dyce. Hand sanitiser, labels and signs are “everywhere” and distancing is being enforced at check in and security.
CHC has also adapted a helicopter – unofficially dubbed a “corona copter” by industry – to ferry suspected Covid-19 sufferers back to shore for treatment, as have other operators.
The company can use the other aircraft in its fleet to transport suspected cases, but only with sufficient spacing between crew and passengers, with a “deep clean” carried out before the copter can return to normal duties.
All the same, workers have taken to social media to raise concerns about social distancing in heliports and on board copters used by the oil industry.
Mr Jones said: “None of us has experienced this before. We are learning as we go along, with safety in mind.
“We’ve taken Health Protection Scotland’s advice and been over-cautious in how we’ve applied it. We’ve gone one step higher. For example, if they say ‘there’s no infection, you can bring everyone back’, we’ve said ‘no we would rather bring fewer people back’.
“We’re working hard to provide a service. Our pilots want to do the job and get sick people back to start the recovery process.”
He said the procedures CHC has put in place appear to have protected its crew.
Mr Jones said: “Touch wood, we’ve done very well so far. Hopefully the procedures we’ve got in place are helping towards that.
“We feel like we are getting there. There are days when things are going really well. There are other days when we have a few queries and we take them back with us.
“I would like to think we’ve got ourselves a little bit more aligned and things are a bit calmer. There are fewer queries and we are on a nice line now.”
‘Significantly reduced’ Shell team still landing UK’s gas at St Fergus
A “significantly reduced” Shell team is continuing to land gas at one of the UK’s major gas terminals in Aberdeenshire, despite the Covid-19 outbreak.
Around 20% of the UK’s gas supply is landed at the St Fergus site near Peterhead, with each one of the team “feeling the responsibility” to deliver the energy for vital services like businesses and hospitals.
However, Shell has been forced to reduce the workforce in light of the virus to those who perform operational or safety critical tasks at the plant.
It comes after a contractor who visited the site last month tested positive for the disease, but Shell has since deep cleaned the areas the colleague worked at.
Plant manager Steve Morrice said it is as important as ever to have the facility running smoothly to provide for vital services that need the energy supply.
He said: “This is a tough time for the whole UK and whatever challenges we face at the plant, we bring up to 20% of the country’s gas supply onshore. That’s critical for hospitals, homes, businesses and power stations. Every one of my team feels that responsibility.”
Current measures are in place at the plant for “an initial few weeks” although bosses are working through the implications of having restrictions in place for a number of months.
St Fergus receives gas through the SEGAL pipeline system, which is fed by the SEGAL and Fulmas lines from the UK sector.
It also receives from the Tampen pipeline which allows the Uk to import gas from Norway.
Once landed, hydrocarbon components are separated with methane being sent to the National Grid for distribution for cooking and cleaning.
The remaining products like ethane, butane, propane and gasoline, are sent to a plant at Mossmorran via underground pipelines for further processing.
Captaining a North Sea emergency vessel during coronavirus
The work of emergency response and rescue vessels (ERRVs) is just as essential now as it was prior to the Covid-19 outbreak.
ERRVs are the place of safety should anything go wrong during operations on North Sea platforms, from abseiling workers potentially falling into the sea, to a helicopter ditching near the installations.
“Without us there they have no backup and they would probably have to shut down,” said Captain Ivor Flett, of the Mariner Sentinel ERRV.
“Without a place of safety they’re not allowed to work so we’re pretty critical to the offshore industry.”
Capt Flett, from Orkney, has worked at sea for 33 years – of which 26 have been on ERRV vessels.
He commands a crew of 12 men on the Class B vessel, but a significant portion of ERRV vessels are made up of international workers – meaning the industry is currently facing problemss in crewing up the ships due to travel restrictions.
The entire industry has therefore been asking workers to remain at sea for an additional four weeks, making up a total of two months offshore.
Capt Flett said: “Although we’re doing our part, we’re also probably in one of the safest places to be.
“I can’t really claim altruism on behalf of it, it’s just common sense. When we’re at sea and isolated, we truly are in a contained environment.
“Other than the fact we work in the environment we work in, we’re in the safest place we can possibly be because our power, our water, our space is completely isolated.
“Most guys realise that so when I asked the crew if they were willing to do an extra trip it was completely unanimous.”
The ship is fitted with metal plates on the windows to help it withstand the conditions of the North Sea, with videos going viral in recent years of ERRVs tackling giant waves, reported to be 100ft high.
Capt Flett added: “There’s always the option to leave the field and run for shelter. In 26 years I’ve only had to do that twice in extreme weather conditions.
“We don’t like to do it because, obviously, despite the fact in those weather conditions there’s probably not a lot we could offer in an emergency situation, it gives the guys on the platform piece of mind.”