By Miles Hunter, Contributing Reporter
RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – For a large proportion of people working in Macaé, commuting to work by helicopter is not the preserve of the rich and famous, but the only way to get to their offshore job. Macaé’s sky buzzes with the sound of helicopters constantly ferrying crew to-and-from the platforms situated in Brazil’s most productive oil fields. Currently, Macaé’s airport leads the national ranking of helicopter traffic, with an average of 2,000 flights per month, commuting about 32,500 workers, at an average cost $1,500 each.
This is about double the number of flights and passengers transported through São Tomé Airport, in Campos city, its nearest rival. Bruno Mimbela of Lupatech explains what it’s like to use a helicopter the way most people use a bus:
“I started my offshore life at the age of nineteen and was obviously very excited about the prospect of being taken to oil rigs by helicopters. The feeling of being in such a small craft hovering over the platforms really takes your breath away, for the first few times anyway,” Mimbela describes.
Mr. Mimbela went on to explain, “The whole rigmarole gets tiring very quickly though. After a while you begin to dread the sometimes two hour plus journeys across the ocean where there is no scenery change just floor to ceiling sea and sky. The ride is also extremely bumpy taking away any previous romantic notions I had of helicopter travel.”
It’s not only the helicopter flight that offshore workers have trouble coping with. There are also unexpected meteorological factors that put extra pressure on the system. Helicopters that can‘t take off from the city‘s airport when there is bad weather, sometimes forcing crew to stay offshore for longer periods of time.
Waiting for clear skies can cause frustration on the rigs and bottlenecks at the city’s hotels. Mariana Teixeira of Rio Mar, an onshore logistics company says, “It can be very hard looking after crew that are stuck onshore not knowing when they are to leave. It can cause all sorts of problems at the hotels that are normally operating at a 90 percent occupation rate anyway.”
Despite the problems encountered by offshore workers there seems to be no slowing of demand for qualified pilots willing to work from Macaé. Patricia Almeida, currently a systems analyst at Marfood, has re-mortgaged her house, investing around R$55,000 for train to become a helicopter pilot.
Patricia explains, “I’ve taken a risk and have invested a lot of my money into this dream. I believe that the commercial helicopter industry is growing and there is a strong demand for pilots which in-turn will hopefully make it a very well-paid career.”
Mrs. Almeida went on to add, “I have completed 100 hours of training and am looking to start my career as a co-pilot where I should receive around R$9,000 a month. After a further 1,000 hours I should be able to apply for my pilots license and from their I’ll be able to command my own fee.”
The future for helicopter pilots working in the offshore industry looks good, though the work that is expected of them may change in the medium to long term. The continuing development of the Santos Basin cluster of oil fields has led Petrobras to consider building an “island-hub” over 300km from the shore.
The aim of the “island-hub” would be for workers to be transported to the hub by boat, and then the remainder of their journey to be taken by helicopter. The helicopter pilots servicing these routes would be expected to work offshore for longer periods, staying at the “island-hub” between jobs. If the “island-hub” gets the go ahead it could be fully operational by 2017.