During my time flying offshore from Abu Dhabi (1973-1975) we supported Das Island and the Zakum and Umm Shaif oil fields. Each of these fields consisted of, at that time, about 30-40 wells, each with a small helideck rising out of the sea.
Our helicopters had two tasks, one was carrying out crew changes from the two or three drilling rigs in each field to either Abu Dhabi or Das Island, while the other was working the field. This meant flying maintenance crews from one well head to another throughout the day. We would drop one crew on a well, fly on to the next and drop another crew, go back to refuel from the main platform and then pick up the first crew to drop them on another well and return for the second crew – and so on. On a busy day we could easily do a hundred landings and not leave the seat for five hours. Lunch might be a sandwich from a rig, eaten on the hoof, so to speak. Once, I was offered a glass of red wine with my sandwich – only on a French rig!
On the thirteenth of February in 1975, I was working the Umm Shaif field. The Arabian Gulf (or Persian if you worked in Iran) generally had good weather with clear skies, moderate winds and a low sea state. On that day, however, a storm was letting rip, the wind was strong and the wave height was exceptional for the Gulf.
North of the field, a tug was towing a barge loaded with drill pipe and casing to Das Island (I think). In the heavy sea the tow parted and the barge was at the mercy of the wind. I don’t know what it weighed, but it must have been a couple of hundred tons.
The wind was from the north and the barge was drifting directly towards the Umm Shaif field. The waters in the Gulf are relatively shallow and the rigs were all the jack up type, meaning they stand on legs that are wound down onto the sea bed once the rig is in position. Imagine the scene, hundreds of tons of barge drifting into an oil field which has 40 wells and 2 or 3 rigs all standing on the sea bed. The barge was capable of knocking over a rig or destroying one or more wells in its charge through the field.
It was bearing down on the rig Antares situated on the north rim of Umm Shaif. Panic ensued. Lives were going to be lost, and there would be an environmental disaster if crude oil was released from a ruined well.
The two helicopters working Umm Shaif were diverted to evacuate Antares. Time was short, the barge was easily visible and it was clear to everyone watching that its course was directly to the rig.
Discipline on the rig deck was good and the evacuation well organised. There was no panicked rush to the helicopters, everyone kept their head. This was not the last flight out of Saigon.
The Bell 212s I and the other pilot were flying normally carry 13 passengers, but that went out of the window that day. There was no time to wait for seat belts, passengers didn’t all have seats, anyway. Some were on the floor, others sitting on the lap of a mate. I don’t know how many rig crew I had on board at any one time, all I know is that the machine had the power to get off the deck and land at the nearest rig before returning for the next load. You’ve seen the pictures of the C17 carrying over 830 escapees from Afghanistan – well this was the same, but on a much smaller scale – very much smaller.
Somehow we evacuated the vast majority of the crew. Each time I returned to the Antares, the barge was closer. After we had cleared all the crew who were going to leave, I circled the rig and spotted a man in the water. He had jumped off the rig rather than be on it when it collapsed. Neither helicopter could do anything for this swimmer. We were not equipped with rescue hoists and the waves were too big to be able to get low enough to help him. All I could do was keep him in sight in case a rescue vessel could not see him.
The rig was saved by a work-boat/rig support vessel which nudged the barge off course and forced it clear of the Antares with literally minutes to spare. A brave captain. Somehow they renewed the tow on the barge and life returned to normal.
Finally, I was rewarded by the sight of the man in the water being rescued.
It had been a tense day.