Safety the key as Nigeria's helicopter businesses gear up
Around 35,000 annual road deaths, difficulties encountered in accessing the nation's oil refineries, plus 10,000 annual deaths resulting from problems getting to hospital, all point to a helicopter boost in Nigeria. However, operational safety is a big concern. Chukwu Emeke reports.
Over the years, helicopters in Nigeria have been used primarily for servicing oil and gas contracts, emergency evacuations, and by the security services and private operators.
In recent months, however, Nigeria’s helicopter business sector has been significantly affected by the volatility in global oil prices and militancy in the Niger-Delta region, where large quantities of the nation’s crude oil can be found.
The militants have been threatening to shoot down aircraft after bursting oil pipelines and creating emergencies that require helicopters to attend.
Additionally, the unemployment rate and other economic challenges have helped spawn a government campaign away from reliance on the nation’s oil revenue sources and towards diversification.
The government’s focus is now towards agriculture, mining and other sectors, which should mean a higher demand for helicopters required for prospecting of mining sites, agricultural operations and emergency services.
Helicopter operators are preparing themselves to tap into the imminent opportunities. “We are looking very seriously at our non-oil and gas support sector and we have made significant inroads in that area,” explained Caverton Helicopters managing director, Captain Josiah Choms.
Stakeholders are, however, concerned about safety issues involved in the emerging trend. “There have not been definite regulations as regards helicopter operations. Demand exists but the issues of infrastructure, legislation and regulation need to be addressed,” explained Izy Air CEO Alex Izinyon.
Because they possessed the required skills and capacity, oil companies had, for a long time, dictated how helicopters operated in the country. Also, due to the absence of clear airspace rules, determining procedures has been largely left to the helicopter operators.
With lower airspace radar issues and other human factors to be taken into account, the Nigerian Civil Aviation Authority (NCAA) has felt the need to equip itself with experienced helicopter inspectors and other expertise required to ensure safe helicopter operations in the country.
The NCAA had been urged to improve oversight of helicopter operations following the accident on August 12, 2015, which saw a Bristow Helicopters S-76 helicopter plunge into the Lagos Lagoon.
One of the Accident Investigation Bureau (AIB) preliminary safety recommendations said the NCAA needed to ensure development of aeronautical charts and liaise with relevant sister agencies to ensure proper regulation of communication mast installation.
AIB’s commissioner, Felix Abali said his organisation was already collaborating with helicopter manufacturers and other relevant international organisations to establish causes of helicopter accidents recorded in the past, in order to ensure that measures were taken to guard against future occurrences.
Bristow Helicopters (Nigeria) said it is taking measures to further improve its operational safety measures to avoid accidents.
Meanwhile, the Nigerian Airspace Management Agency (NAMA) also says it is making efforts to enhance safety. An air traffic management (ATM) assessment survey of the Niger-Delta coastal area for the deployment of automatic dependent surveillance broadcast (ADS-B) services has been completed. The agency says the project is aimed at deploying surveillance facilities to aid in the safe and effective monitoring and control of low-level helicopter operations in the oil-rich coastal areas.
It has also signed a commercial agreement with Exxon Mobile, and has begun the provision of air traffic services at Finima-Bonny airstrip. This is in addition to similar services currently being provided at other oil fields at Eket, Osubi, Escravos and Focados.”
To further improve safety, and following the exchange rate problems between the naira and the US dollar, there have also been calls for the government to consider waivers for helicopter operators with regards to spares imports in order to secure economic viability for the operator, which significantly influences operations safety.