Lightning and weather risks in offshore helicopter operations

John Michael Assing
Weather & Environment

Interview with John-Michael Assing, Pilot, Nominated Person Crew Training, HeliService International GmbH

  • Could you talk about your background in offshore helicopter operations and your current role in HeliService?
    After more than 13 years in the military, I started my civil career with a German company in September 2010. Flying sea pilot transfers, offshore HEMS, crew change for wind farms and in Poland, for the Oil and Gas industry, HHO operations for offshore HEMS, to wind turbines, platforms, ships etc. I became TRI/TRE in 2015 and since then, I´ve been involved in recurrent training and checking as well as type rating training flights with the helicopter in Germany for Coptersafety Oy. I´m also working as the Nominated Person Crew Training in HeliService International GmbH in Germany.
  • What role does the weather, and especially thunderstorms, play in offshore helicopter operations?
    The weather plays a very big role. Since we have had limited access to offshore weather in the past, sometimes we had to turn around before reaching our destination. The situation has improved, but still — offshore weather is demanding and not always predictable. Thunderstorms usually preclude a flight and if there is evidence of lightning, we either turn around or do not launch the flight at all. It is forbidden to fly a helicopter into a thunderstorm!
  • Have you personally encountered dangerous or potentially life-threatening situations during bad weather conditions?
    Only during a private flight with a Piper PA28R fixed wing aircraft. There was a heavy thunderstorm line coming from the Netherlands and we were underway along the Dutch border, direction south. The lightning strikes came out from the far away clouds, but they penetrated quickly deep into the blue skies we were flying in. I diverted to a little airfield to the southeast. When I was flying the downwind leg there, the heavy turbulence preceding the storm reached us, and I made a last-minute emergency landing before the frontline hit us. We could not leave the aircraft for 45 minutes after landing. The rain was like a flood and the thunderstorm very intense. I misjudged the approach speed of the storm during the preflight.
  • What are the most critical offshore helicopter operations that are highly impacted by weather?
    SAR and HEMS flights. There is even more pressure and the will to go, because you need to save someone.
  • In terms of helicopter hoisting operations in offshore wind parks, how are lightning risks taken into consideration?
    If there is a thunderstorm forecasted and/or passing near the wind farm, there will be no hoisting operation. Sometimes, if there are only small cells passing by, you can wait on the helideck and continue your mission at a later point.
  • What kind of safety measures do helicopter pilots usually use to avoid bad weather and lightning risks?
    We check the weather with all the available resources and these are getting better and better. We use webcams and sometimes call the manned platforms for clarification. If it is very unclear, we can also call a professional aviation weather meteorologist — most of the time to ask when the weather will improve.
  • Do you see areas of improvement in terms of improving safety measures for offshore helicopter operations during bad weather conditions? Would you say the current standards and regulations concerning safety of offshore helicopter flights are sufficient? If not, what should be improved?
    I think it is already very good. An improvement would be to have more certified weather stations offshore and for those to be reflected in the official METAR and TAF system. The more information regarding your area of operation you have, the better. Early sea fog detection and/or forecasts would also be an improvement.
  • Obviously, flying through thunderstorms is dangerous for helicopters and should be avoided. How important would you rate the availability of real-time, accurate lightning detection and near-term (less than 60 minutes) nowcasts that could improve safety of offshore helicopter operations and reduce risks for the loss of revenue during downtime, such as for offshore wind parks?
    It would further improve safety and help crews to make proper decisions on whether and when they can fly.


Striking distance: How weather and lightning data supports safe, efficient offshore helicopter operations

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