In an earlier story, I had narrated, rather lightly, the life of an offshore pilot. At that time, my transition from naval aviator to offshore pilot was complete. But it was still early days to weigh-in on which side the grass was greener. Today, with the benefit of hindsight and experience, both good and bad, I have some more insights to share with you.
Though this article focuses on a touring offshore pilot, much of what follows can be read-across to any offshore worker, including the mercantile marine, who work ON & live OFF a roster system.
The oil and gas (O&G) industry works 24/7/365 under a stressful, highly regulated, safety-critical environment. Where’s the room for error if you are sitting on thousands of gallons of hydrocarbons in the middle of the sea? If the wheels of economy have to run, machinery hundreds of miles into the sea has to turn ceaselessly.
Humans are no machines. They need friends, family, social life, rest and recreation. There is also accumulated fatigue – aggregated physical and mental stress that can be dissipated only through long break (vacation) from work. All this together explains need for scientific ‘scheduling’ or ‘rostering’ for an industry like O&G.
Imagine being away from familial duties for 6 weeks only to return home to wide smiles and warm hugs! No need to beseech the boss “Sir, chutti de do na” (Sir, please give me leave). In offshore, even if you want to, you cannot violate the duty roster. A guaranteed ticket home awaits at the end of each tour. What could possibly be a happier situation than that?
Let us unravel the layers one by one.
Most parts of the offshore world work to an ‘equal time’ ON-OFF’ roster. While offshore workers usually work 14 or 28 days days ON-OFF, national Flight and Duty Time Limitations (FDTL) and client requirements may dictate different rostering schedule for pilots. The resultant balance between client requirements, quantum of flying, availability of pilots, economic situation, and regulations yields a roster system. In India, 6/3 or 4/2 (weeks ON/OFF) has become industry norm; meaning roughly getting half the time OFF for days ON (only for Indian pilots; expatriate pilots invariably follow ‘equal time’ ON/OFF).
It may look like a lot but when you come home after a 6-week absence, there’s a lot on your plate. For touring pilots with spouses who are working professionals, 6/3 or 4/2 effectively boils down to one or two weekends that you may actually spend together. Kids grow up; parents don’t get any younger. Everybody needs your attention when on break, even if you feel the other way around.
It’s all fine till medical issues crop-up on either side. In a blink, the break is over. In the earlier story, I described the last week of break as “mourning week” in a lighter vein. But when problems take longer than your break to resolve, it’s no longer funny. There’s only so much a company can do to accommodate requests. Everybody’s leave is interconnected and the show must go on (companies make pairs called ‘back to back’). This can load the dice, over time. Mental peace is the first casualty.
Long Periods of Absence
A majority of offshore pilots, especially in India, are ex-military. Long periods of absence away from family or non-family postings are not alien to this community. But the ethos of civil offshore and armed forces is totally different. In uniform, one had exemplar leaders, camaraderie, kinship, social life, and a modicum of concern for ‘wellness’. The same cannot be taken for granted in an industry with its eye firmly on bean-counters and the bottom line. Further, if offshore is your second career, chances are, your spouse and children already have a life of their own. Being away for weeks can slowly create a ‘relationship drift’. Priorities and choices may not necessarily match. Each side grows to enjoy an increasing latitude for independent decision making. Good or bad, that’s the way it is.
After living for weeks in hotels, guest houses or serviced apartments (with housekeeping and kitchen staff), you may also develop a penchant (sometimes bordering on OCD) for order and routine. Coming home, you are now the sous-chef and executive housekeeper! ‘My way or the highway’ doesn’t cut with folks at home either. Since you are on break, downward delegation of work is but expected!
The only sage counsel? Deal with it with a smiling face!
Quantum of Flying
Bear in mind the quantum of offshore flying before you sign up. It is almost like a scheduled service that runs round the year. Oil wells are shifting deeper into the sea, stretching crew-change sorties to over 2 hours each. In a profit-making company, expect to fly at least two crew change sorties each flying day. Production shuttles can involve upto 6-7 hours of flying and 40-50 landings per day. Take away roughly 1.5 to 2 hours for flying to/from the field. Now do the math. Ten landings per hour amounts to a Performance Class 1 landing / takeoff every 5 minutes. In tropical countries, temperature can soar to over 30ºC with high humidity. Some companies require the Captain to deplane each landing and supervise pax embarkation and disembarkation (for safety reasons). And all this in an uncontrolled, self-supervised workspace. It is not for the faint hearted or infirm.
Monotony Sets In
Offshore flying has a set pattern. The profiles are either crew change, production shuttles (with or without night halt), or night ambulance. Although each sortie is different, monotony can soon set in. An experienced touring pilot had this to say:
“The dynamic nature of offshore flying notwithstanding, doing the same activity over weeks, repetitively, can become monotonous. ‘Been there, done that’ can set in quite soon, taking the edge away from challenges that high-achievers quest-for in a profession. When work ceases to provide intellectual stimulation, and combines with other factors like poor compensation, lack of recognition, and poor working conditions, frustration cannot be far away.”
Add other factors spelt out in this story and you have quite a combustible mix; enough to be taken seriously.
Pilots have to deal with a byzantine regulatory labyrinth. A Class 1 medical certificate doesn’t necessarily equate with a wellness quotient; particularly when you are pushing 50s and the temptation to brush health issues under the carpet out of fear of medical invalidation is high. As far as I know, there are no special medical standards for offshore flying. The choice therefore rests with the individual: fly 10 corporate hours a month or 90 offshore hours in conditions described here.
In reality, this may not be an easy choice for those running home, hearth & finances from the comfort zone of a rotational roster. It takes a long time to earn your spurs in the offshore industry (hint: time to offshore captaincy can test your patience). To throw it all up is neither easy nor practical in a tough job market. A gentle caution to not ignore latent health issues is in order. The sea is a terribly unforgiving medium.
Drug and Alcohol Abuse
The touring pilot’s life – especially if you are an expat, or reclusive by nature – can be quite lonely. Living out of suitcases, shuttling between duty station, detachments, night halts on the rig, flying six days a week and returning to an empty room, can sometime lead you to strange places. It is somewhat akin to a long-haul airline pilot’s life minus the material comforts and fat pay cheques that come with it. In a recent study, the NTSB noted with concern the rising prevalence of potentially impairing drugs in fatally injured pilots. Although about 97% of such cases were from general aviation, do we have a handle on what could possibly be going on in the lives of those who returned to safe landings?
The NTSB summary notes:
“Of the 952 pilots fatally injured between 2013 and 2017 with available toxicology tests results, 28 percent tested positive for at least one potentially impairing drug, up from 23 percent in the 2014 study. Fifteen percent were positive for at least one drug indicating a potentially impairing condition, an increase of 3 percentage points from the 2014 study. Ten percent showed evidence of use of at least one controlled substance, compared to about eight percent in the 2014 study. About five percent tested positive for an illicit drug, a slight increase from the less than four percent in the 2014 study.”
These are damning statistics that speak only of the dead. For the living, only hope is to raise your hand, seek help and, if required, call it a day. Loneliness can lead you to dark zones where drugs or alcohol may entice. But it solves nothing. Without family or a social circle that looks out for you, it is very easy to fall into a hole. If you notice any unusual symptoms in yourself or your co-workers, flying certainly needs to take a backseat.
The Expat Problem
The qualifications and experience required for offshore flying don’t come easy or cheap. The entry barriers are huge. Hence the dependency on expat crew. Flying in a foreign country brings with it a host of socio-cultural and regulatory issues that can weigh you down. It is hard enough to earn and keep a flying licence. To top that, countries have their own processes to validate a foreign licence, or provide, like in India, a Foreign Aircrew Temporary Authorization (FATA). This annual process may also be interlinked with your security clearance, medical certification and visa renewal. In combination, it constitutes a ‘tripwire’ that can send you tumbling out of a job any day.
In India, we have turned this process into a nightmare that can make stress levels go through the overhead panel. In one instance, an expat pilot was reaching the last day of his FATA validity, work visa, and 6-weeks duty cycle, with no certainty of an approval because the local police station guy won’t sign a security clearance. I saw him crack up and, wisely, call-in unfit for cockpit duties. To the police official or employer, he was just another pilot. The expat was staring at a potential job loss with mouths to feed and EMIs to pay. Add this to your yearly calendar if you are an expat flying in an environment already preloaded with many other stressors. Also consider the first couple of days when you report for duty with jet lag and a disrupted circadian rhythm.
A touring pilot has to develop the capacity to deal with sudden emergencies that strike home when you are touring or out at sea.
Case 1: I was just donning my uniform for a packed flying day when I received the call nobody ever wants. My wife called to inform me with mounting anxiety that she was taking my son to the hospital with a medical emergency. Fortunately, I was in country and had a boss who said “drop everything; go home and look after your family”. I requested for some rescheduling, monitored my son’s condition through telecalls, even flew that day when I should not have. The situation improved without my active presence, but that was sheer providence.
Case 2: I was offshore and preparing for my last production shuttle for the day when I saw a lowly contract worker shivering next to the radio room. He had lost his father and was desperate to avail a seat on the helicopter for return to mainland. Sunset was fast approaching and here was the last flight of the day. His home lay another 1000 miles away from nearest shore. That helicopter ride would decide if he gets to see his father’s face or an urn of ashes. Can you imagine his misery?
Fortunately in both cases, angels were on our side. It could easily have been far worse. For instance, the ongoing global crisis due to Coronavirus would have thrown many offshore workers’ lives into complete disarray. How do you adjust a 14-day quarantine period within a 14-day ON-OFF cycle?
Challenges Galore, but Satisfaction Guaranteed!
Don’t let this grim saga deter you from following your passion! In the end, many of the factors listed above is part and parcel of any job that entails regular tours. The subtle difference here is that you may be “all at sea” for the most part. Traditional wisdom still endures. Physical fitness, healthy habits, good sleep, social circles (not social media), hobbies and a positive outlook can surmount most of these challenges. I have seen 20000-hr captains fade into retirement after flying offshore most of their lives. If they can, you can.
The sea has a mystical charm only a seafarer would know. I would anyday go back to the sea. What about you?
©KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @realkaypius