Return of the PLB

2 min read

Passengers on offshore helicopter flights will be reissued personal locater beacons (PLBs) starting in July.

Passengers on offshore helicopter flights will be reissued with personal locater beacons (PLBs) starting in July.

PLBs, which are carried by the passengers on helicopter flights offshore, were withdrawn from service in March. It was determined that the devices had hampered a search and rescue mission following the crash of a Super Puma in the North Sea in February.

The helicopter was carrying passengers to the oil platform in the ETAP (Eastern Trough Area Project) field, a network of oil and gas reservoirs operated by BP and Shell, 125 miles east of Aberdeen.

The PLBs had caused longer range rescue beacons on the helicopter and life rafts to shut down.

‘In essence, the smart technology fitted to the life-raft beacons is designed to shut the beacon down if it detects another beacon signal within a certain radius,’ explained Britta Hallbauer, a spokeswoman for Oil and Gas UK, the organisation that represents the UK offshore oil and gas industry.

‘This is supposed to ensure that the aircraft can easily be homed in on by search-and-rescue aircraft by having only one high-powered aircraft beacon transmitting at a time.’

However, she added, when the ETAP helicopter ditched, the lower-powered passenger PLBs were detected by the smart beacons, which caused all of the aircraft and life-raft beacons to power down.

The issue of helicopter safety became more pressing following the aftermath of the fatal North Sea helicopter accident on 1 April.

The UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) instructed helicopter operators to stop carrying the personal beacons in ‘standby' mode in case they were accidentally activated and interfered with aircraft safety systems.

Representatives from Oil and Gas UK, helicopter operators, the CAA and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) met on 2 June to agree on a joint course of action that should lead to personal beacons being re-introduced from next month.

Hallbauer said the group agreed that all models of personal locator beacons used offshore in the UK will be tested by the manufacturers in accordance with CAA guidance to demonstrate that they are unlikely to switch on accidentally.

‘The test for the PLBs will look at environmental issues, such as heat and water resistance, resistance to pressure changes, or what happens when it is knocked and tampered with.’

Once a model has passed these tests, the results will be given to the helicopter operators, who will in turn make a case to CAA for reintroducing the personal beacon back onto the helicopters. She said additional checks will be made at heliports and on oil and gas installations to check that no personal beacons have been activated accidentally by passengers before they board the aircraft.

Hallbauer said to prevent the PLBs interfering with and shutting down the life-raft beacons, as happened in the ETAP ditching, the life-raft beacons will be switched back to a non-smart mode, so that they do not automatically switch off if they detect another beacon going off nearby.

Helicopter operators will produce a timetable for the replacement of smart locator beacons and share this with Oil and Gas UK.

It was also agreed at the 2 June meeting that helicopter operators will need to install 121.5 (the frequency PLBs transmit on) receivers onshore to check that no PLBs have been accidentally activated before boarding.

Installation operators will install similar receivers offshore.

Hallbauer said Oil and Gas UK will convene a meeting at the end of June with the CAA and helicopter operators to agree the final steps towards PLB reintroduction in July.