I am writing this update from an offshore platform in the North Sea. Coming to this platform was quite an experience, and that’s what I’ll write about today. Another day I’ll write what it’s like actually being here (after I’ve had some time to form my opinions).
I was told before coming to the UK that you get onto the platform by helicopter. That’s fine and dandy; I had flown in a helicopter before for work in northern Canada. You just put on your coveralls, hop in, put on some ear protection and off you go!
Well, it’s very different here in the North Sea. I think the industry here is one of the most regulated in the word.
First of all, when you check in the heliport (a separate building from the normal airport), all your bags are searched. That’s right, someone goes through all the things in your bags and makes sure there is no: alcohol, sharp objects, drugs. Even prescription medicine is taken from you (but then given to the medic on the platform to give back to you).
Now, how about carry on luggage? That doesn’t exist. The most you are allowed to take is something that will fit in the one pocket of your survival suit (more on that later). That’s about enough room for my paperback novel, or a folded newspaper to read on the plane. I had to give my laptop to them as just another piece of luggage.
So once I was checked in, we proceed through the metal detectors (which goes fast; nobody has any carry-on luggage). We then enter a room and everyone starts putting on their survival suit.
Some background. North Sea temperature is currently about 6 degrees Celsius or so. That gives people about 5 minutes of survival time in the water before cold and hypothermia overcomes them. That’s why everyone, including the pilots, must fly in survival suits. Basically it’s a glorified dry suit, which will keep the wearer (almost) completely dry if immersed in water. Coupled with a thermal suit underneath (which is also mandatory), it gives people several (some tell stories of up to 12) hours of survival in case of a submersion emergency.
On top of the survival suit everyone wears a life jacket with built-in re breather (which allows you to re-breathe your own exhaled air, as well as adding a small canister of compressed air). For a good site with pictures of what we look like and the equipment we use check out this place (expand images on the right).
So this is all standard and par for the course. Everyone that was on my flight had done this before and just went through the motions. I had to ask them for a suit in my size, which ended up being a little tight in the neck (the seal which keeps water from going inside down your neck is like a wide rubber band. For a similar effect try wearing a 1.5″ wide rubber band around your neck for a 90 minute flight that slightly cuts off circulation to your brain.)
But really, the experience was quite enjoyable. When we were all walking out onto the tarmac in single file, suited up, I couldn’t keep a smile off my face. As far as I was concerned, I was a NASA astronaut suited up for a space mission! Well okay, not quite.
But from walking up to the chopper and feeling the turbine exhaust in your face, to flying over the sea and seeing platforms strewn about, to getting off the chopper once secure on the platform and seeing a man standing behind a mounted gun pointed at you ready to shoot down any flames that may come out of the chopper with his ammunition of foam, to marching through thick sliding steel doors to the place where you pass off your re-breather to the crew waiting to come home, it was a very cool experience.