Warships and wind farms: transferable skills in the aviation industry
British International Helicopter Services Limited (BIH) has long-term experience supporting UK Ministry of Defence operations offshore, in Northern and Southern hemispheres, and is exploiting that experience in de-risking aviation support of the UK offshore wind industry.
The rapid growth of offshore wind farms has increased the requirement for helicopters to aid in the transportation of turbine engineers and support staff to offshore locations. Though fewer offshore wind farms operate than on land, the benefits of wind farms at sea are widely recognised and their development has been prioritised in recent years.
Research by WindEurope shows more than one in three new turbines are being built offshore. That growth has helped boost the share of wind energy in the European Union’s electricity supply from 2% at the turn of the millennium to over 12% today.
The speed of development in the offshore wind energy sector and the cost of just a single wind turbine not generating its normal amount of power – estimated to be £15,000 per day for 3.6MW turbines – has resulted in a high level of urgency to keep the blades turning.
This urgency has increased alongside interest in rapid helicopter support, rather than slower response by vessel, as new turbines grow in size, with the Burbo Bank Extension Project using 8MW turbines and Hornsea 1 building 7MW turbines.
However, recent monitoring conducted by DONG Energy revealed that offshore wind turbines in some areas of the North Sea were inaccessible 49% of the time, between October and March. While access improved during summer months, overall the turbines could not be accessed by sea for a third of the year. In areas where weather conditions can remain bad for long periods, this can lead to a significant loss of revenue in a short space of time.
The distance of new wind farms from the shoreline is increasing, too. As offshore wind farms move further offshore, into harsher marine environments, the skills and experience required to deliver helicopter services across the lifecycle of a wind farm have also intensified.
The aerial support side of the offshore wind industry is best suited to those with extensive aviation experience and an awareness of the dangers of conducting helicopter operations in potentially hazardous environments, as crews tackle some of the world’s most challenging flying conditions.
The challenges faced when executing an offshore windfarm mission are similar to those associated with delivering helicopter services under more mature markets – and the transferable skills between these markets is the reason why aviation companies with military and offshore utility experience are best positioned to perform flexible, safe and reliable offshore wind farm helicopter operations.
Alistair Riches, BIH’s Commercial Director, highlights the similarities between military and offshore wind farm operations: “When you are delivering people to ships or platforms, by landing or by winch, the high degree of skill necessary is transferrable. The challenge of delivering a technician to a wind turbine nacelle is similar to that of delivering a person to the deck of a ship. It’s safely overcome through expertise, understanding the environment and operational flexibility.
“Our 150-strong team includes some of the world’s most highly experienced pilots and rear crew, flying in some of the planet’s most challenging flying and environmental conditions.”