I recently returned from an interesting trip to a rig just off of the coast of Benghazi, Libya.
Up until 2012, we had a rig named "Nick 120", this wasn't the official name, but it was what it was referred to by everybody, from the rig workers themselves all the way up to the top. The rig was hastily closed after being evacuated in 2012 following the tragic attack on the U.S. Consulate.
With help from higher powers (I.E - The U.S Navy, Royal Navy and Italian Navy), the rig was then safely "disconnected" in late 2012.
Now however, the powers that be have decided it's time for the rig to re-open.
It's 2019, and of course Libya is still an incredibly dangerous country to operate, so lots of precautions were taken for the trip, and will be taken for rig workers. Due to the situation on the ground, the rig was originally connected to a large refinery in the town of Ras Lanuf, however, it will now be connected to a closer refinery situated between Benghazi and the town of Kuwayfiyah.
Here goes, enjoy!
For this trip, I was sent from London to Paris via Eurostar, before staying the night in a hotel near CDG.
So i'll kick off the trip from Paris. Airline: Air France
Route: Paris Charles de Gaulle, France to Tunis, Tunisia
Scheduled Departure: 07:20
Actual Departure: 07:32
Scheduled Arrival: 08:50
Actual Arrival: 08:41
Flight Duration: 2 hours 09 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Airbus A320-200 (F-HEPH)
I arrived at CDG Terminal 2E just before 6am, plenty of time for the 07:20 flight. I was greeted at the Business check-in area by name, and escorted to the desk, where I was able to drop my bag. Having checked in online the night before I had already picked the last remaining window seat, 2E.
I was glad to see the flight was on time, I was meeting a team from our Houston office at Tunis, and I only had 2 hours between this and my connecting flight in TUN.
After heading through security, I proceeded to the impressive AF lounge. I was glad to see a great variety of hot breakfast options available, as well as a generous continental breakfast selection. Plenty of space to sit in the AF lounge even at peak times, so I grabbed a coffee and a few pastries before dashing off to gate L31.
At the gate, there seemed to already be a queue forming, despite there being no call for boarding yet. The screen at the gate showed the service onboard in both cabins, the Captains name, the weather in TUN and expected flight time - Very detailed, and something which other airlines should note.
A few minutes later, boarding was called, I used the SkyPriority lane and soon found myself zigzagging down the ramps towards the aircraft.
I was greeted onboard by a friendly member of crew, and took my seat in 2A. The business cabin was full, and it seemed Economy was nearly at capacity too.
Orange Juice was distributed when boarding had finished, and packaged "Wet wipes" were handed out. Basically those hand wipe things you get at KFC. The taxi to the runway was surprisingly short for this time of day, and we were soon airborne just a few minutes late.
The crew sprung into service, serving an incredibly disappointing breakfast.
A cheese scone with a few slices of cold meats, with a yoghurt. The coffee was good though. I was annoyed though as I wasn't quite sure if i'd have time to eat in TUN, and didn't know whether my next flight offered any kind of service.
Of course none of this was down to the 2 crew serving us, who were faultless, very efficient and friendly.
Soon enough we found ourselves descending into TUN.
Flight crew buttered the landing, 9 minutes early.
I bid farewell to the crew, rushed through all of the formalities before collecting my bag to meet the others in departures. Airline: Libyan Airlines
Route: Tunis, Tunisia to Benghazi, Libya
Scheduled Departure: 10:50
Actual Departure: 22:14
Scheduled Arrival: 13:35
Actual Arrival: 01:06+1
Flight Duration: 1 hour 52 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Airbus A320-200 (5A-LAK)
After running around like a madman, I made it to the check-in hall, where the rest of the group were waiting. I asked why they were waiting, after agreeing to meet in the departure lounge. One of them pointed to the screen where it showed a delay of 6 hours. 17:00 more information.
For "security" reasons, check-in was unavailable until 3 hours before departure, and despite the scheduled departure time being in a mere hour, we had to wait until 3 hours before actual departure to check in. So with not a lot to do in Tunis Airport apart from sit in a cafe, we waited, and waited and waited some more.
At 16:00, the screen changed to 18:00. Of course, there is no Libyan Airlines desk, so nobody to help, airport staff were far from approachable.
Finally, 18:00 rolled around, and we were pointed towards a Tunisair employee who told us the aircraft was yet to leave Benghazi, and was delayed due an issue with the crew. Next information 20:00.
So we waited some more.
Eventually, after thinking it would never happen, check-in opened, the aircraft was on its way. With no online check in available, we were checked in the old fashioned way, and I was given seat 16F. Despite holding a business class ticket, no business was available on the flight. Oh well, not my money
Security was pretty quick, and eventually we were airside. Tunis airport is very simple, there isn't much here.
Shortly after 21:30, 5N-LAK touched down into Tunis and taxied to what I originally thought was the cargo ramp, a series of remote stands facing away from the terminal.
Boarding started at 21:50, and around 40 of us (the entire load of pax) boarded a bus, and sped off towards the awaiting Airbus.
The 8 year old Airbus looked very tired from the outside, the dirty white livery was looking almost brown on the bottom and yellow on the top.
We boarded via one set of steps through 1L.
At the boarding door were 2 female members of the crew who were very friendly, both spoke excellent English and seemed to be welcoming everybody in English. The cabin was tired, the aircraft also hadn't been cleaned. I took my seat in 16F, I had row 16 to myself.
The Captain had a thick South African accent, he apologised for the delay stating there had been an issue with the previous crew, who were Benghazi based, and a standby crew needed to be deployed from elsewhere, logistical issues such as Tripoli airport being temporarily closed made it difficult, apparently. The safety demonstration was shown in English only, and we found ourselves airborne a few minutes after the door closed.
A service of soft-drinks was offered, along with a packet of crackers. The crew stated that we did have meals loaded, however due to the delay they were not allowed to serve them. To be honest, the service was pretty good. More than i'd get on BA
I got a coke, no ice was available, so it was lukewarm.
After only an hour of flight, we came over the coast of Libya, made a very sharp left turn before landing into Benghazi. Clear skies made for some great views of the city as we approached.
Benghazi is one of the more peaceful cities in Libya, tourism is apparently on the rise according to the inflight magazine.
Other than the delay, the flight was OK. I said my goodbyes to the crew, and we collected our bags and were met by a security team in arrivals. There were no customs or immigration facilities, or if there were, they were closed.
A security team met us, heavily armed, much to the disgust of the local military/police at the airport. We boarded 2 Humvee armoured vehicles, and a convoy of 4 set off to where we would call home for the night, a small apartment just outside of town.
After 6 hours sleep, we were woken up to complete our trip to Nick 120. We were driven 25 minutes away to a small makeshift helicopter pad, where we boarded a Libyan registered Bell 407 helicopter, which flew us 30 minutes north to Nick 120. This isn't the only rig being opened, another drilling rig which was placed in 2013 north of Misrata has also opened, with even tighter security.
Since Summer 2018, a local contracting team had been renovating Nick 120, updating the piping, installing a terminal for boats, one of the only rigs worldwide in our network to have one, as well as general renovations like accommodation and electricity etc.
The workers on Nick 120 were volunteers, mostly seasoned rig workers with years of experience. Before they were to arrive we had to put the tick in the box and that was my role here.
We landed on a newly installed helipad, and the chopper waited with us.
First, I was going to look at the safety side, the actual drilling equipment and such like.
I looked first at equipment outside of the derrick, such as the Underwater Mud Pump and Suction Line which had recently been replaced due to rust, followed by the mud tank and motor.
Secondly I moved onto the "other" equipment inside the derrick, such as the actual platform, Top Drive, the Derrick itself, Goose Neck and Travelling Block, before finally looking at the all important drilling equipment.
A brand new Drill had been installed, along with the all important Blowout Preventers. The drill was retracted into the derrick so I could get a proper look, including at the actual Drill Head. All was good.
Next I moved onto the accommodation, a separate mens & womens accommodation block had been installed on a lower deck, all had timed hot water supplies, electricity and wi-fi. There was also an accommodation block located next to the helipad for the security team.
The canteen had been outfitted with brand new equipment, and flat screen TV's. There was also a "Comfort" room, which is a new feature for the African rigs, which includes Pool/Foosball Tables, Games Consoles and other items.
As this was a Shallow Water drilling rig, the bottom deck was quite close to sea level, to allow access to the boat terminal. The boat terminal was never planned to be used, but is there in the case of another evacuation.
The rig also had 6 brand new lifeboat stations, however, no lifeboats were onboard.
The rig got the ticks in the boxes it needed from myself and the team from Houston, and it was officially re-commissioned into an active rig. This set off a chain of events, including deploying a team to work on it.
We re-boarded the Bell 407, and we headed back to mainland. We remained in Libya for the next 4 days, and had meetings with the local government and higher ups within the company regarding the operation of the rig, and finally we greeted the team of 70 who would work on the rig.
8 days after arriving, the rig officially started operations, and myself and the team were onboard to witness it.
Things soon turned South.
7 hours into its operation, there was a warning in the control room. A gas build-up warning. Without hesitation the Offshore Installation Manager (OIM) instantly initiated the Blowout Preventers. It was deadly silent in the control room for a few seconds, which felt like hours, waiting for some kind of noise or other indication. Another warning, Blowout Preventer failure. This was followed shortly by a pressure warning. Nobody knew if the warnings were false or if there were genuine failures.
The workers on the derrick had retracted the drill as far as it could go to protect the equipment.
With the drill retracted, the blowout preventer malfunctioning, oil had slowly started to spill out into the sea. With no obvious way of avoiding a catastrophic oil spill, the workers on the derrick instantly followed the Well Workover procedure, and initiated the "Shear Ram".
The Shear Ram is a blowout preventer closing element fitted with hardened steel blades designed to cut the tubing when the blowout preventer is closed or fails, it then fully closes the tubing to provide isolation and sealing. A shear ram is normally used as a last resort to regain pressure control of a well that is flowing. Once the pipe is cut by the shear rams, the joint of tubing is destroyed in the process.
In layman's terms, you have liquid flowing through a pipe, the "plug" at the top is removed, and so liquid starts pouring out of the top of the pipe, the shear ram cuts the pipe in half and seals the top to prevent further leakage.
Once the Shear Ram is initiated, the rig basically becomes redundant. The sealing of the tubing is only temporary however, and is unstable so permanent sealing is required.
At this point, everybody was almost in a stunned silence. There was nothing else that could be done, and so that was that, months of planning and hard work were suddenly thrown into the wind.
It was incredibly disheartening for all involved. I felt almost responsible since I had completed the safety checks just a week prior and signed off on everything. If it wasn't for the quick thinking of the workers, we could have had not only an environmentally damaging oil spill, but potentially a catastrophic explosion.
As quickly as it opened, the rig was now inoperable. The workers were slowly shuttled back to the mainland, the refinery in Benghazi cut off the pipes, and a contracting company was soon on their way to safely shut down the rig.
I've tried to make it sound as simple as I can, but the situation was very complex. The company had just lost what could amount to tens of millions in re-activating the rig, and will now pay more closing it and dealing with the minor spillage.
Reluctantly, we made our way back to Benghazi.
2 days passed, and after meetings of varying anger from different departments and the local government, the rig was officially handed over to the contractors to close. Luckily, the oil spill was so minor the oil slick was barely recognisable unless you were on top of it.
The immediate conclusion to the incident was fatigue in the tubing which was one of the few parts which were not replaced, mixed with unfortunate, unforeseeable events such as Blowout Preventer failure.
For some perspective, the last time a Blowout Preventer failed, was Deepwater Horizon.
On a positive note, I got to spend some time in the beautiful city of Benghazi, the city itself it very safe, I felt safe walking around, the locals were very friendly, for those that are into nightlife then Benghazi has a great nightlife scene, it still has obvious signs of a war, however it is indeed on the mend. It even has an enormous H&M store and a modern Niketown store.
I just wanted to put this behind me, and finally, after nearly 2 weeks in Libya it was time to go home. Airline: Libyan Airlines
Route: Benghazi, Libya to Tunis, Tunisia
Scheduled Departure: 09:00
Actual Departure: 09:48
Scheduled Arrival: 09:45
Actual Arrival: 10:30
Flight Duration: 1 hour 42 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Airbus A320-200 (5A-LAQ)
Benghazi airport is quite minimalistic, there isn't a lot inside apart from a cafe and a couple of stores. Check-in for Libyan Airlines is done at dedicated counters. It seems the main users of the airport are oil workers (many other companies operate in the area) and locals working abroad.
It was a genuinely miserable feeling to be leaving Benghazi, not a sentence I thought i'd ever say.
Security was pretty strict at BEN. The airport was deserted.
At the gate, 5A-LAQ sat awaiting us, ready to take us to TUN.
We boarded via stairs, around 40/45 pax on this flight to Tunis.
The cabin crew were the same ones who flew us out 2 weeks earlier, however we had different flight crew. The aircraft had been cleaned this time. The seats on this A320 are the standard recaro slimline seats on nearly every A320 in Europe. After a quick boarding process, we were taxiing and in the air in no time. A beautiful sunny day, clear skies, perfect weather for flying, made for some great views of the coast as we departed over the sea.
In-flight service started shortly after take off, a round of soft drinks followed by the meal service. No choice of food, and everybody was given a tray with Salmon on plain bagel and a small pot of fruit salad. For a flight so short it's not bad at all.
It was good for a flight of such short duration. The trays were cleared in and the remainder of the flight passed without anything noteworthy.
The weather was the same in Tunis, other than the blinding sun shining through the opposite window, we had views of the desert for as far as the eye could see. Airline: Tunisair
Route: Tunis, Tunisia to London Heathrow, UK
Scheduled Departure: 13:50
Actual Departure: 15:41
Scheduled Arrival: 16:55
Actual Arrival: 18:13
Flight Duration: 2 hours 32 minutes
Aircraft Type/Reg: Airbus A319-114 (TS-IMO)
After collecting my bag and re-checking in, I headed to the Tunisair lounge, the "Espace Privilege" lounge, which is used by pretty much every airline that flies here. The lounge is pretty depressing, with tables surrounded by chairs almost like a restaurant. There is a small buffet bar, which is just about as sad as the rest of the lounge. It offered different varieties of Carbohydrate and thats about it.
Bottled water was placed next to the hot food to keep the water nice and warm.......
All other drinks were available from the bar, so for anything other than water you needed to ask the bartender. The lounge had wi-fi which was pretty intermittent.
Due to a late arrival, the flight was delayed slightly.
I decided to head to gate shortly before boarding was called. The gate area is pretty spacious and is actually the nicest part of the terminal.
We boarded via airbridge, Business first then economy rush afterwards.
The crew at the door were actually on their phones which I think must be a first, considering I guess the purser is always at the front. It seemed almost like an inconvenience that passengers were interrupting them.
The Tunisair business class is like most you'll find, normal economy with the middle seat blocked. The seats however are the old style, none of this slimline nonsense, with lots of cushion, and great legroom.
No pre-departure service on this flight. We soon pushed back and after a manual safety demo we were in the air a few minutes later.
There were a total of 2 pax in business class.
Around 40 minutes after takeoff the crew started the service, first they hand delivered drinks. I got a coke.
They then placed a tablecloth on my fold out table, which was pretty strange, and I was asked if I want beef or fish.
I got the fish. It was actually delicious, it was basically rice mixed with seafood, a knock-off Paella if you will.
After this, I never saw the crew again. I moved my stuff onto the table on the aisle seat to get it out of the way.
It wasn't until the seatbelt sign came on that the crew re-appeared from behind the curtain and cleared away the meal service.
We had some nice views of the city as we came into land at LHR, before touching down just over an hour late.
The flight would have been great if the crew were interested service instead of playing angry birds or whatever the kids are playing these days.
After a pretty depressing trip, I was just glad to be back in Blighty. After an understandable grilling from the border force, I collected my bag and headed to the Radisson on Bath Road to finish up some stuff for a meeting the following day.
I will leave the report at that. I hope you enjoyed, comments and feedback welcome as always.
As a side note, on the 27th anniversary of the Piper Alpha disaster, please spare a thought for the hardwork and dedication of the workers who live and work on the rigs, it's physically hard graft, away from their families for months on end and it's an incredibly dangerous job, that is so essential to an industry like aviation, and just everyday life in general. Don't take it for granted.