Born: United States of America
Primarily active in: United States of America

From Leadership Profile: Vertiflite Winter 2007

Robert Sheffield, Managing Director, Shell Aircraft Limited

As Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Limited, Bob Sheffield brings a large fleet operator’s perspective to the Executive Committee of the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST).  Mr. Sheffield is responsible for the safety standards governing approximately 75 helicopters and 25 fixed-wing aircraft supporting Shell oil operations worldwide.  The helicopters alone moved around 735,000 passengers in 2006, and the combined fleet averages more than a million passengers a year.  Under Mr. Sheffield’s leadership, Shell Aircraft has promoted both the culture and technology of helicopter safety.  He says, “Customer ignorance is the greatest barrier to reducing helicopter accident rates.  So long as customers choose the operator with the lowest price, operators will have pressure to ignore proven risk-reduction measures.”

Bob Sheffield holds Commercial Airplane Single- and Multi-Engine -Land, and Instrument pilot ratings, and a Private Glider rating.  Growing up in northeast Mississippi, his early interest in aviation was sparked at an airshow.  He recalls, “A Navy A-4, I think, came up from behind the crowd – it was a total surprise and shock – and roared over.  That intrigued me.”  The boyhood fascination with flying was reinforced by the sonic booms of B-58 Hustlers flying from nearby Columbus Air Force Base.  Scholarship money led to Mississippi State University for a degree in petroleum engineering, and to an ROTC commission in the Air Force upon graduation in 1972.

After undergraduate pilot training, Bob Sheffield flew F-4 Phantoms and “Aggressor” F-5E Tiger IIs.  In 1979, he joined the then-secret 4477th Test and Evaluation Flight to fly Soviet MiG-21s.  However, after almost 10 years in the military, civilian pay was appealing.  The experienced fighter pilot knew his petroleum engineering classmates in the oil business were making twice his active duty salary.  He adds, “At the time I made my decision to get out, I remember the garbage collectors in San Francisco had gone on strike.  They got a raise that put their pay equal to mine as a Captain on flight pay.”

Also eye-opening for a future IHST member, punitive safety policies relieved a respected squadron commander for the dangerous actions of a new pilot.  Bob Sheffield says, “The Air Force appeared to me, at the time I made my decision, to be a very risky career path.  You could do great work for 20 years, be on your way to making General, and with one mistake, not necessarily under your control, your career was finished.”

In 1982, interviews with several companies earned Mr. Sheffield a chance to use his petroleum engineering degree with Shell in New Orleans.  The location also promised a chance to fly F-4s again with the Louisiana Air National Guard, but the unit had no billet for a Captain who was ready to make Major.  Mr. Sheffield observes, “The Guard thing never worked out, but the Shell career did.”

Over the next 25 years, Bob Sheffield worked in nearly every aspect of the oil and gas exploration and production business in California, Louisiana, Michigan, Montana, New Mexico, and Texas.  He earned Master’s degrees in petroleum engineering and business administration.  In 1998, he assumed responsibility for all air and marine logistics operations in the Gulf of Mexico. 

In April 2003, Bob Sheffield became director of advisory service for Shell Aircraft, and in October 2004 he was appointed managing director.  Mr. Sheffield acknowledges, “I thought my time in the Air Force would never connect with my Shell career, but actually it was essential to get this job.  The two worked together beautifully because I understood the business that Shell does and how logistics plays a role in it.”

Setting Standards
Shell Aircraft Ltd. manages its global fleet under different arrangements.  Though most helicopters are under contract from Bristow, CHC, PHI, and other operators, Shell Aircraft owns six EC155s operated in Nigeria by Bristow and flies its own three S-92s in Brunei.  “We constantly review aircraft types in terms of their design, their equipment specifications, and their safety records, and list approved aircraft types for use by Shell companies,” explains Mr. Sheffield.

Shell Aircraft publishes its own operating standards and guidelines based largely on ICAO Standards and Recommended Practices, supplemented with other international best practices and its own fleet lessons.  “We audit every operation that flies on behalf of Shell against those standards and guidelines,” says Mr. Sheffield.  “That process of having our own standards, auditing against those standards, and having only approved aircraft operators work for Shell has, since 1992, cut our fatal accident rate four-fold.”

The five-year average fatal aviation accident rate for members of the International Association of Oil & Gas Producers (OGP) has been just under seven fatal accidents per million flying hours.  Flying about 100,000 hours annually, Shell Aircraft suffered no fatal air accidents from May 1995 to July 2002.  However, one fatal accident in July 2002 and another in October 2003 raised the company’s fatal air accident rate to four per million flying hours.

Overwater operations to elevated platforms impose special risks on oil industry helicopter operations, and the push for new energy sources means even more flying in difficult environments.  According to Mr. Sheffield, “Increasingly we find oil and gas in places that are extremely hot, extremely cold, or extremely remote, so forward infrastructure is hard to establish . . . We’re now tasked to fly more than 150 nm and in some cases more than 200 nm offshore.”

Safety Culture
Challenging operations and environments led Shell Aircraft to a just, “generative” safety culture that maintains a state of constant unease.  According to Mr. Sheffield, “With a state of constant unease, you’re always asking what could go wrong.”  However, in contrast to punitive measures that suppress safety concerns, “We want to reward and recognize those people who report on incidents.”  The generative culture aims at an informed workforce aware of risks and the best practices for managing them.

The Shell Aircraft safety approach is not the popular “no-blame” culture.  “I think that goes just a little too far, says Mr. Sheffield.  “There should always be a place for disciplinary action when people willfully jeopardize other people’s safety.  That’s rare, so we do focus on being fair and reporting all incidents.”

 A “constant state of unease” considers possible causes of mishaps, and an extensive helicopter accident study by NASA provided the foundation of the Shell Aircraft safety plan.  “One thing that came out of that is we can indeed reduce the current accident rate by 80%.  More importantly, it listed seven key risk-reduction measures to do that.”

The first of Shell’s identified risk reduction measures is to employ helicopters that have all the features of the latest amendments to FAR 27 and 29.  Mr. Sheffield explains, “In Shell’s case, we made a firm commitment to upgrade the types of helicopters -- especially in those areas where we do a lot of flying -- to the latest design types, aircraft like the S-92, the EC225, the Agusta Westland 139, and so on.”  Shell’s continuing partnership with helicopter manufacturers and the International Association of Oil and Gas producers aims to move safety features seen on in commercial airliners into helicopters.  Mr. Sheffield says, “One we especially pushed was fail-safe as opposed to safe-life components.”  The company also invested in Cranfield University research that led to push-out windows, Helicopter Underwater Escape Training, and revised seating protocols for oil industry helicopters.  Mr. Sheffield notes, “The research showed that if you were in the back wing seat of a Bell 212, seven times out of ten, you weren’t going to get out in the time allotted.”

Another Shell safety initiative stresses Line Oriented Flight Training (LOFT) with simulator scenarios representative of actual operating environments.  Mr. Sheffield explains, “You could go to the simulator and do loss of tail rotor training over Orlando, Florida, but that’s not where you’re flying.  The trick is to put it in the scenario the guys are flying every day.”  LOFT also requires realistic training devices less than an ocean away.  “I tell manufacturers they should never sell an aircraft without having some form of high-fidelity simulator . . . Suffice it to say the manufacturers and training companies could do more to make fit-for-purpose flight training devices more accessible.”

Shell quality and safety management systems are interdependent.  According to Bob Sheffield, “I think the foundation for a safety management system is in fact a quality management system. . .Quality comes into play in a very big way both in the maintenance of the aircraft and the operations.” 

Shell was a leader in Health and Usage Monitoring Systems (HUMS) for helicopter operations.  The company invested in early HUMS for Bristow Super Pumas.  The UK CAA found HUMS at the time successfully identified 67% of incipient failures before flight.  “Even if it’s right only two-thirds of the time, that’s what I’d want on my aircraft,” says Mr. Sheffield.  Today, 70% of the Shell fleet worldwide and virtually all its aircraft in high-exposure areas have HUMS. 

Shell also promoted helicopter Flight Data Monitoring (or Helicopter Operational Management Programs) in the North Sea.  With exceedance data always reviewed by fellow pilots, Flight Data Management Monitoring provides a powerful tool to reinforce training.  “It must not be used for disciplinary action except in cases of extreme misconduct,” explains Mr. Sheffield.  “It’s worked really well because the pilots see it as on their side.”

Least costly of Shell’s seven safety measures are disciplined takeoff and landing profiles that minimize the consequences of engine failures.  To avoid risk, pilots seek the safest height/velocity profile rather than just “pull and go,” Bob Sheffield observes, “It’s just a training issue.  The data is available from the manufacturers.”  Landing approaches are likewise planned to avoid obstacles if an aircraft suffers a sudden loss of power. 

Shell Aircraft has also insisted on technology to prevent Controlled Flight Into Terrain or water and collisions in flight.  The company has the Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System and less costly voice alerts on many of its aircraft. “Voice alerts of low altitude or impending terrain could have saved countless lives in the past,” says Mr. Sheffield.  The Traffic Collision Advisory System (TCAS) is also part of the preferred safety suite.  “When Shell insisted on that with PHI, we just had to pay for that.  There was a lot of push-back before-hand.  .  .When it was put in the aircraft, the pilots universally said, ‘I didn’t know what was out there.  Thanks so much for putting this on the aircraft.’”

Current helicopters still have safety and performance drawbacks.  According to Mr. Sheffield, “The thing that is still out there that no one has really solved is the tail rotor. . .  If would be really good if the designers could provide a more reliable or more capable tail rotor, or eliminate it all together.”

With Shell’s Great White project located 180 miles south of Galveston, rotorcraft speed and range are also growing more important.  “More and more things are being discovered in ultra-deep water where it’s a 90-minute flight or more,” says Mr. Sheffield.  “I think the latest generation -- the EC225, the S-92, the AW-139 -- while they do go a little faster; they do carry a little more.  and they have many more good safety features - they are only incremental advances.  We haven’t seen a breakthrough yet.”  He adds, “That’s what appeals to me most about the BellAgusta 609 and Sikorsky’s X-2 concept because with something that can go 250 kt, you can go long range much faster.”