Aviation professionals who operate or manage flights for the world’s natural resource sector — an industry focused on onshore exploration and extraction of minerals, metals, oil and gas — face unusual risks, particularly in remote environments (ASW, 11/13). Best practices developed for scheduled airlines, however, increasingly influence strategic and tactical decisions at resource sector companies, says a safety specialist with cross-industry experience.
Geoff Want, group adviser, aviation safety, for Rio Tinto and co-chair of the Technical Advisory Committee of Flight Safety Foundation’s Basic Aviation Risk Standard (BARS) Program, calls standardization of the sector’s remote-operations risk mitigation during the past four years “a real step forward.” Rio Tinto, a BARS Program benefactor member, has a single set of principles and standards that individual mines and projects apply to their own local set of circumstances, he said (see “Rio Tinto Aviation Facts”).
Flying for the business units tends to cover a mix of strategic, routine, quickly planned and emergency situations. “Clearly it doesn’t have to be for the direct mining business. It could be anything to support the community activities that the business unit does as part of their day-to-day work, including environmental issues that go with it,” Want said. “I’ve been involved in getting helicopters to help move the lock gates, movable parts of locks that control water level at a small port, and in helping to install water pipelines in a mountainous area.”
The term remote operations has several connotations to the 21 BARS member organizations, some beyond the simple criteria of long distances from heavily populated areas or the absence of advanced airline-level infrastructure.
“Aviation is a key enabler for the onshore resources industry — it is very rare to have mine sites close to cities,” Want said. “Basic fly-in, fly-outs mean, geographically, that they’re remote. Even in Australia, you may be 400 or 500 nm (741 or 926 km) away from the major cities. But the remoteness is often driven particularly — especially in non-developed countries — by the fact that the infrastructure isn’t there.”
Developing a temporary or permanent air transportation system while exploration teams search for new mine sites typically begins with building a gravel airstrip for relatively small aircraft to fly in and out. “Then, as the site develops, we will build up that infrastructure to support a Rio Tinto mining operation,” he said. “For example, in Guinea, we’re working with the government on developing a new iron-ore project. The site is remote geographically. We already have had to build an airstrip to support the development work, and we will need to build roads and other surface-transport infrastructure. Aviation is absolutely key in supporting that project.”
Airfields at these remote mining sites typically are built, owned and operated as private mission–only facilities by Rio Tinto — reducing the probability of airborne traffic conflicts or ground operations risks between the company’s contracted charter operators and non-affiliated aircraft. Under this arrangement, the pilots for approved operators conduct takeoffs and landings per the company’s standard operating procedures.
BARS member organizations also take into account the site’s current status as a hostile or non-hostile area, which can change seasonally. “For example, we have the Diavik Diamond Mine up near the Arctic Circle in Canada,” Want said. “It’s tundra, so during the summer months, it’s flat. In theory, in a single-engine helicopter, the pilot could autorotate to an emergency landing. A pilot also could probably do an emergency landing with fixed-wing airplane. But in winter, because of the harshness of the weather, it becomes extremely hostile. You have very little option then if you are flying over tundra.
“One of our copper and gold mines in Mongolia is on the edge of the Gobi desert, which is flat, so a helicopter pilot could almost certainly do an autorotation and get down safely. What you’re then into are the questions, ‘Can you survive?’ and ‘Do you have the ability to be rescued?’ You may have survival kits on the aircraft, but the temperature extremes could impact your survival.” If there’s ‘No’ for the answer in any of those types of situations, particularly for passenger carriage, we would take action then for the operator to use twin-engined aircraft and mitigate risks in other ways.
Previous ASW articles have noted the threats often cited, such as controlling people and animals that could cross active runways, securing fuel supplies, and ensuring that center-of-gravity and gross weight limits are not exceeded during cargo loading. Individual threats such as these are important, but the most important aspect is providing a process to identify and assess any such threat, he said.
“The bow-tie document, which is risk-based, is an incredibly powerful document within the BAR Standard when trying to explain — firstly to non-aviation people in our own industry, or in business with the resource industry — what we are trying to do in aviation,” Want said. “Secondly, it’s powerful when dealing with operators in less-regulated, more remote areas to try to explain, from the aviation safety perspective, what we and other resource companies are looking for.”
Missing Safety Regulation
In many remote operations, BARS member organizations cannot assume that regulatory oversight by the government will suffice. In some parts of Africa, for example, publicly available assessments of states through the Universal Safety Oversight Audit Programme of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) make this clear.
“The greatest risk is the possible lack of safety regulation in the country concerned,” Want said. “The state’s ICAO audit is typically pointing out that there isn’t appropriate aviation safety regulation in the country for various reasons. We use BARS to help ensure that when we work in those countries, we are able to create a good safety environment. The operators in those countries may be fine, but it is a risk. You also can’t just assume you can use an operator. Checking of operators becomes even more critical in those countries.
“Some of our projects have the potential to be very large. We may find an operator that might be fine with some relatively small aircraft — Beechcraft King Airs, Beech 1900s — but if we as an organization are then looking for them to grow into bigger aircraft — perhaps Bombardier Dash 8s or ATRs or even bigger — then we have to think very carefully who we need to be our partners. BARS gets us very much to first base. We still need to look very closely at our specific mining operation. We, like other BARS member organizations, undertake our own detailed operational reviews.”
Rio Tinto Aviation Facts
- Rio Tinto currently does not own or operate aircraft. Its business units in 2013 produced iron ore, aluminum, copper, coal, uranium, diamonds and other minerals such as borax/boric oxide, salt and titanium dioxide, according to its public, mid-2013 financial report. In its 2012 annual report, Rio Tinto Group reported consolidated sales revenue of $51 billion and 71,000 employees in more than 40 countries.
- Company requirements for aviation services are met either through contracts with travel management companies (more than 500,000 sectors per year on publicly available, scheduled commercial airlines) or by direct contracting with more than 100 air charter operators (more than 300,000 passenger journeys per year).
- The travel management companies comply with Rio Tinto’s approved-airline system for employee travel, based on the International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit and additional requirements.
- The contracted air charter operators undergo annual BARS audits and other types of operational reviews by each company.
- Examples of mining locations where whole-airplane charters are used for regular fly-in, fly-out operations transporting mining personnel include Australia, Mongolia, Guinea and Mozambique.
- Operations using chartered helicopters include external load, airborne geophysical surveys by exploration teams and transfers of marine pilots to shipping vessels in ports worldwide.
- One example of the diversity of helicopter operations is Rio Tinto’s contracts for pilots of small helicopters, such as Robinson R22s, to muster cattle, sheep and camels on grazing land in vast, remote areas of northern Australia under harsh flight conditions.
Even before arranging for a small aviation operation inside a country, Rio Tinto typically assesses — with each prospective aircraft operator — various communications issues, logistical details and company-instituted control mechanisms.
“There is one country in Africa where we have the potential for an enormous coal mining operation,” Want said. “As part of our investment, we will put in a basic degree of aviation control, too, and make sure that it operates safely. If we later have a number of operators contracted to us, then we will have central operational control. If anybody has an emergency landing, a loss of aircraft or a recovery, the initial response, search and rescue and medical emergency evacuation will be in our own hands. We will have control because there may not be that capability in the country, particularly near our mines.”
At the most basic level, Rio Tinto’s ongoing approval of an aviation partner comes down to whether the parties to a contract can rely on each other to fulfill in everyday practice what they have committed on paper to do. “We make sure operators are driving what they say they are doing at a head-office level, that their operation continues to undertake those things,” he said. “BARS member organizations have the responsibility to help and support them so that they can grow, maintaining the type of requirements we need for the BARS. It’s fine having a standard operating procedure, but operators need to make sure that people are working to it.”
A related consideration is ensuring that the pilots and aircraft described in a contract actually are used, preventing the substitution of unauthorized subcontractors in the field. “One of the things Rio Tinto is extremely strong about is that we are not happy about cross-hires and sub-chartering,” Want said. “If we clear an operator, it means we look at the aircraft, we look at the pilots, we have pilots line up completely with our own standards and those in BARS. Then we look for evidence and assurance that the pilots used are always compatible with those training and hours requirements.”
Processes similarly are in place to ensure that the expected aircraft actually is being operated and maintained as agreed. “If those operators want to bring in another aircraft or bring in new pilots — depending on the actual location — they may almost need to clear those new individual aircraft and pilots with Rio Tinto before we allow them to be used,” he said. “We’re down to that sort of detail in some places.”
Effective safety management systems (SMS) and a pathway to fulfilling future needs are so important that contracting with BARS-audited charter operators from outside the country of the mining site — in some parts of Africa, that may mean various South Africa–based or Kenya-based operators backed by their own sound infrastructure — becomes the only viable alternative for Rio Tinto.
This aviation-resource flexibility can be tapped if needed in extraordinary situations, which in 2013 included extreme rainfall and a cyclone in February affecting Rio Tinto mine sites in Western Australia, and a copper mine wall slide in April along a geotechnical fault line in Bingham Canyon, Utah, U.S. Some emergency responses, as in the airline world, are planned far in advance for strategic business resilience.
“There are basic business continuity and crisis–type plans in place,” Want said. “Evacuation plans guide how we do things in an emergency in a measured way. Quite often, this is where the longer-term relationship with an operator is important.”
During Tropical Cyclone Rusty in Western Australia — where the company has a diamond mine and the Pilbara region is a source of iron ore and salt — fallen electrical power lines and damage to railroads had been expected as well as associated heavy flooding disrupting communication lines running beside the tracks. “We were using helicopters to get those out,” he said. “Evacuation of our people in extreme weather and even in the case of civil unrest might be prudent.
“So BARS is great. BARS is ‘first base.’ But it’s still an audit. It’s important that we use the knowledge from BARS to have a working relationship with these operators and undertake our own operational reviews. One, so that we know that they are operating as they said they would during the BARS audit. Two, if we need to have additional, ad hoc flight operations, we know the organization, we know the operator well, so we know what their capabilities are and how we can work with them.”
The BARS Program, from its inception in 2010 in Australia, has aimed to identify and mitigate risks alongside civil aviation authorities. Australia offers the first model of the intended relationship, one that sometimes has been difficult to replicate, Want said.
During the past four years, Australian officials have told BARS member organization representatives that the FSF program has proven complementary to their own work. Want said, “You would be wrong to say that every national regulatory authority is as supportive as the Australians, but there is an increasing number who are supporting BARS in that way.”
At the less-supportive end of the spectrum, officials tend to raise concerns about potential interference with their national sovereignty over aviation safety, he said. As with other voluntary initiatives such as the International Air Transport Association Operational Safety Audit, however, the balance of interests actually struck enhances safety without causing problems in these working relationships, he said.
In practice, although some national governments may rely on oversight of airlines’ SMS to assess company-level risk mitigation, the BARS member organizations say they are compelled to delve more deeply. “It’s all very well saying that the operator’s head office has an SMS but it’s up to us to make sure that we see that in the day-to-day operations,” Want said. “People in our business units have the day-to-day management of these air operations. We have help from consultants to ensure that at this working level, we see the application of the standards is actually happening ‘on the day, in the hangar.’”
Some prospective operators still fail to understand what the BARS member organizations expect and why, but inroads have been made with them. “We’ve seen things like Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning Systems get more widely accepted in aircraft,” Want said. “At the smaller end of the spectrum, we’re making sure that the operators have an understanding of why the traffic-alert and collision avoidance system is so important, and we have training on how to use these pieces of equipment in exactly the same way as pilots at commercial airlines would be trained.”
The BAR Standard provides baseline guidance on emergency planning to the BARS member organizations. “That will be backed up by our own independent contracts with these operators,” Want said. “We want to have notification of any incidents which may affect our own operations, but also those operations they do for other people.” In the case of an air safety event, depending on the country of occurrence, the BARS member organization may or may not have any official observer or party role in the work of the investigation authority.
“We would always offer support to the investigation,” he said. “Quite often, as the customer, we don’t have a right to be there. However, quite often we can find a way to be involved. A charter operator for Rio Tinto had an accident five years ago in Peru — a helicopter crashed in the Andes — and in the end, we actually provided a lot of the logistical support and the capability for the recovery. As a result of that, we were treated as an interested party. But we often have to earn that right.”
Overall, Want has become convinced that the BAR Standard document will improve safety within the resource sector. “Rio Tinto is very proud to have been a party — with the Foundation and BHP Billiton — in the initial development of the BAR Standard,” he said. “Different resource companies might use it slightly differently, but that standard is one of the greatest tools and aids to train people in what the industry is seeking in terms of safe aviation. It’s an incredibly powerful document.”