Travails of a touring offshore pilot

Global Aviator|May 2020

Travails of a touring offshore pilot
In an earlier column I had narrated, rather lightly, the life of an offshore pilot. At that time, my transition from naval aviator to the 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.
KP Sanjeev Kumar

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 and 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 not 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 a long break (vacation) from work. All this combined explains the need for scientific ‘scheduling’ or ‘rostering’ for an industry like O&G.

Imagine being away from familial duties for six weeks only to return home to wide smiles and warm hugs! No need to beseech the boss “Sir, I need a vacation”. 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

Rostering System

Most parts of the offshore world work to an ‘equal time’ ON-OFF’ roster. While offshore workers usually work 14 or 28 days ON-OFF, national Flight and Duty Time Limitations (FDTL) and client requirements may dictate different rostering schedules 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.

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May 2020