Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

10 August 2007

Weather and the Offshore Helicopter Pilot

I spent thirteen years flying helicopters offshore in the Gulf of Mexico for one of the largest helicopter companies in what used to be called the "Free World." For nine of those years I actually lived for my entire seven-day "hitch" on an offshore oil production platform. My mechanic and I would grab our helicopter on Thursday morning and head out. For the next seven days, I was beholden to the Shell Oil Company, and did what they wanted, when they wanted. Often, we wouldn't see our company's shore ("beach") base again until the next Wednesday evening.

It was an endlessly fascinating job, although you might not think so. I mean, what's there so see? Water? Sky? More water? Well, yeah, the scenery didn't change much. But the weather sure did! Each season brings its own peculiarities.

Summer is blazing hot and calm; bad news for helicopters. Hot air is thin air, and skinny rotor blades need cool, dry, thick air to get a good "bite." It also helps to have some wind blowing. "Some" wind...not too much! All the heat and moisture in the gulf can produce some incredible air-mass thunderstorms. These are storms that aren't associated with any particular squall line. I've seen lone, rogue thunderstorms sitting there, unloading their leaden clouds on the earth below like God's own firehose. It's an awesome sight, and it's quite interesting to study thunderstorms when they're so out in the open, with nothing to block the view.

More than once I've seen a bad storm headed right for my platform. Frantically, I'd strap the helicopter down to the deck and lash the rotor blades tightly - only to have the storm make a big, lazy arc and pass me right by. Once, one did just that. Once I saw that it was going to miss me, I unstrapped the helicopter (in case they needed me to fly) only to have the storm circle back around and hit me again. You bastard!

Winter brings cold fronts and squall lines - nasty cold fronts that drop the temperature down into the thirties and make the wind blow at 25 knots. Remember what I said about "too much" wind? The leading edge of these cold fronts can be so strong that it can blow an unsecured helicopter right off of a platform a toy. And when it's 35 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing 25 knots with nothing to slow it down but your ears, it's damn cold. Luckily, it does not stay that cold for too long. Even so, I hate the cold weather.

The in-between seasons are tricky too. Cold fronts sag down from the north, often without enough energy to push all the way through. Sometimes a cold front will hit us and go through, but stop and then back-up as a warm front or stall and become a stationary front. It can literally mean days of being fogged-in.

Fog and thunderstorms were the bane of my existence offshore, but there was one other phenomenon that we had to watch out for. There were also waterspouts.


Waterspouts are nature's way of quickly sucking water up into the sky to make a cloud (quicker than evaporation would do it). Those who work out in the oil fields of the Gulf of Mexico see them a lot. It is not unusual to see a waterspout feeding one end of a big cloud, and rain pouring down from the other end.

Waterspouts look dramatic, but they are fairly benign, believe it or not. The funnel is liquid (water), and water is pretty heavy. So it's hard to get moving very fast. Up close, you can actually see the water rotating slowly as it gets sucked up. Also, waterspouts don't travel laterally very fast. Usually they're pretty stationary, parked right under the cloud they're feeding. And that cloud will only be coasting along with the prevailing wind, not really part of a squall line or other band of heavy weather.

Don't get me wrong! If the waterspout hits something it can do damage. The energy contained in all that moving water can be impressive! I've seen a waterspout launch a 55-gallon drum off of an oil platform like a rocket.

Sometimes I'd spot a waterspout when I was flying around. Being the curious (read: dumb) helicopter pilot that I are, I'd go over to see if I could get some pics. Now, this was before the days of digital cameras, and like an idiot I've given most of my really good waterspout pictures away. But look at the cool pattern the waterspout makes on the water!

I live in a coastal town, and like any that is subject to severe weather, our local television station keeps a sharp eye out for anything that can be dangerous or harmful to their viewers (e.g. impending hurricanes, intense thunderstorms, or visits by Rosie O'Donnell...). Sometimes a waterspout will be sighted out in the gulf or in one of the many large bays that surround us here. When that happens the t.v. station will go into panic-mode.

The thing about waterspouts is that: a) They don't last very long; and b) They dissipate once they hit something that interrupts the source of water. So while Channel 3 screeches, "Take cover! Jump in the nearest ditch! Save yourselves!" it is really not necessary. It's not like a tornado. As soon as the waterspout gets to the beach it will fall apart and die. There is some wind associated with them, but not all that much. Now, I wouldn't want to be out in a boat with one of those bad boys bearing down on me. And I might be worried if my house was right on the water, but a block or so inland and you're fine. In all of the years that I've lived in Pensacola, I've never heard of a waterspout causing any structural damage or personal injury.

They do look pretty neat though!


David said...

Great Pix!
Really enjoying the recent surge of posts too.

jp said...

Bob, thanks i'm new in civil offshore works your information it's very good and the picks really fasc. Jean P

jp said...

Bob thanks for the info, its really important for new pic's like me, in the industry of flying off shore helicopters, the pictures are so good to, thanks.