6,000 ft above the Gulf of Mexico – Flying aboard a 16-person helicopter back to New Orleans I was still questioning why I spent an entire day sitting in a classroom and being dunked in a pool. Upside down. Harnessed to a helicopter simulator chair. Shell explained it was all in the name of safety just in case there was an issue during the flights to and from its deep water oil and gas production facility in the Gulf we were headed to. As we are about to land safely at the New Orleans airport there was nary an issue during the 100-minute flight but it was reassuring to have passed the Tropical Helicopter Underwater Escape Training (HUET) the day before.
I was a part of the crew invited to tour the Turritella, Shell’s Floating Production, Storage and Offloading (FPSO) facility stationed 200 miles south of Louisiana. The purpose of this trip was to demonstrate to media and members of Team Penske how safety and preparation are critical in the offshore environment and on the track. Team Penske, of course, is a the professional stock car, open wheel and sports car racing team that currently competes in the IndyCar and NASCAR Cup Series, among other racing leagues. Penske Corp. president Bud Denker led his team members on the trip – he was first in the training pool – which included 3-time Indy Car champ Helio Castroneves.
Day 1 of this 2-day event was spent at Shell’s training facility in Robert, Louisiana, about an hour north of New Orleans. The 9-hour (yes, 9 hours!) training class taught us safety techniques and procedures of how to escape and survive a helicopter should it ditch in the water. Teamwork was the theme as all participants learned how to work together to exit the aircraft should it land upright or upside down. This is where fun came in.
The afternoon found us all in an Olympic-size pool that featured a full-scale replica of a helicopter attached to moving cables above. After watching several demonstrations of how to enter and exit the chopper we were strapped to the 5-point harnessed seats several times in both upright and upside positions. Notwithstanding unwanted water rushing up our noses we all passed with flying colors and were presented with HUET certificates we would need for the trip the next day.
A 6:00am hotel lobby rendezvous began our busy Day 2 with a bus ride to the airport. After another safety briefing we were escorted to a helicopter that Shell contracts with PHI. Liftoff was right on schedule and we were quickly soaring above the Gulf. Several members of the Shell team briefed us on their Gulf of Mexico drilling and production facilities while we gazed at nothing but water as far as the eye could see.
Carlos Maurer, president of Shell Lubricants America, was quick to point out one of the final products that is produced in the water below us includes engine oil so many of us use everyday. Helio made sure we all knew that his likeness appears on many of those oil cannisters sold at retail outlets and was the sole reason Shell continue to have record sales numbers. Knowing that we needed to remain strapped to the seats during the flight no one was going to ague with the gregarious race car driver.
We approached the Turritella vessel which hovers over Shell’s Stones field in the Lower Tertiary geologic frontier in the Gulf. Discovered in 2005, it is Shell’s second producing field in this region along with Perdido.
As we circled to get a good view we could see an oil tanker floating a few hundred yards behind the FPSO. They were in the midst of off-loading millions of gallons of oil from the Turritella onto the tanker. This process occurs several times each week.
We landed slowly onto the helipad located a the stern of the vessel. After unstrapping ourselves we carefully walked down into a holding area where we were given more safety instructions and handed personal protective equipment. Our tour began as we were clad in coveralls, protective eye wear, gloves and hard hats. Over the next several hours we were led through the Turritella’s command center, bridge, engineering room, crew bunks and the cafeteria.
120 crew members were on board during our visit, most working the typical off-shore schedule of 14 days on, 14 days off. The crew certainly eats well as we dined with them during a lunchtime shift. Homemade hummus, salads, baked cod, pasta, potatoes and dessert was served by the trained cooks and kitchen crew. The menus change daily which makes for a happy, well-fed crew.
At some point we needed to see the equipment and learn the process of how oil and gas – almost 10,000 feet below us – was being extracted from 27,000 feet below the earth’s surface onto the vessel on which we were standing. The Turritella is a modified ship with one key feature – an extremely large turret is situated near the bow. This structure rises several hundred feet above the main deck and extends through the vessel nearly 30 feet under sea level. This feature allows the Turritella to circle around the stationary turret ensuring the vessel is constantly pointed into the Gulf’s waves to minimize rocking and swaying.
Deep inside the vessel at the bottom of the turret is an incredibly engineered system where a large buoy connects to the ship. Underneath the buoy are a network of steel pipes that creep almost 2 miles down to the bottom of the Gulf. Oil is pumped up through these pipes into the massive storage tanks aboard the Turritella where it is held until it is off-loaded onto tankers.
We were told this FPSO concept was created, in lieu of a stationary oil rig, for several reasons including safety, of course. An FPSO can disconnect the buoy and float away from danger should a hurricane enter the Gulf. The process of disconnecting the buoy – which floats about 200 ft below the water surface – and reconnecting it to the Turritella takes about 7 days. To ensure a smooth operation should the vessel be in the path of a hurricane Shell goes through the drill once a year. An estimated 50,000 barrels of oil equivalent (boe) per day is produced from Stones field.
Our visit ended with most of the Turritella’s crew listening to Helio and Team Penske members talk about teamwork and the importance of their work. Helio made sure to let them know their efforts propel his team to race throughout the year and his checkered flag finishes could not happen without Team Shell.
Upon landing back at the airport we realized the HUET certification we received the previous day was but a small percentage of the measures Shell goes through to ensure its employees and equipment remain safe.
LISTEN TO THE TRIP RECAP AS HEARD ON IHEARTRADIO’S “THE HIGH-TECH TEXAN SHOW WITH MICHAEL GARFIELD”