The UK offshore oil and gas industry is planning to reintroduce the use of personal locator beacons or PLBs on offshore helicopter flights from July. Personal beacons, which are carried by the passengers on helicopter flights offshore, were withdrawn from service in March following the ditching of an offshore helicopter in the UK sector in February when it was found that interference from these had caused the "smart" long-range rescue beacons on the aircraft and life rafts to shut down.
Representatives from Oil & Gas UK, helicopter operators, the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and the HSE met on Tuesday (Jun. 2) to agree a joint course of action that should lead to personal beacons being re-introduced from next month.
Bob Keiller of PSN and chairman of the UK Oil and Gas Helicopter Task Group, set up to address helicopter safety issues in the aftermath of the fatal North Sea helicopter accident on April 1, said: "Search and rescue operations rely on the powerful long-range rescue beacons to home in on accident sites. We were therefore concerned to learn that the weaker personal beacons, with a more limited signal range, had the ability to switch these off.
"Following an instruction from the CAA to the helicopter operators to stop carrying the personal beacons in "standby" mode in case they were accidentally activated and interfered with aircraft safety systems, the industry withdrew the personal beacons until a technical solution could be found. We have been giving this our urgent attention.
"An essential step in the way forward is the early removal of the "smart" shut-down technology from the aircraft beacons so that they cannot be accidentally shut down," he said. "CAA has made it clear that this should now be done and so we expect this to happen during the course of the coming weeks."
At the same time, 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 (for example, if dropped or knocked in transit).
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. 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.
There will be a further meeting at the end of June between the CAA, helicopter operators and representatives from Oil & Gas UK to review the progress of these plans and to agree the final details for the reintroduction of the personal beacons.
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