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Monday, November 1, 2010

Stricter Helicopter Safety Rules Proposed by FAA

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has released a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) concerning helicopter operators, including air ambulances. If finalized, stricter rules and procedures, improved communications and training and additional on-board safety equipment would be the result, according to the regulatory agency. “This is a significant proposal that will improve the safety of many helicopter flights in the U.S.,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “FAA’s initiatives have helped the helicopter industry make progress on many safety issues, but it’s time to take steps towards mandating major safety improvements.”

The FAA NPRM document, which can be viewed at the Federal Register at www.archives.gov?federal-register and on FAA’s website at www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published has requirements for all commercial helicopters, all Part 135 (helicopter and fixed-wing on-demand operators), and helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operators. Here are the proposed rules:

Air Ambulance Operators:

• Equip with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS).

• The proposal seeks comments on requirements for less sophisticated digital flight data recorders (DFDR) dubbed lightweight aircraft recording systems (LARS).

• Conduct operations under Part 135, including flight crew time limitation and rest requirements, when medical personnel are on board.

• Establish operations control centers if they are certificate holders with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances.

• Institute pre-flight risk analysis programs.

• Conduct safety briefings for medical personnel.

• Amend operational requirements to include visual flight rules (VFR) weather minimums, instrument flight rules (IFR) operations at airports/heliports without weather reporting, procedures for VFR approaches, and VFR flight planning.

• Ensure pilots-in-command (PICs) hold an instrument rating.

For all commercial helicopter operators:

• Revise IFR alternate airport minimums.

• Demonstrate competency in recovery from inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions.

• Equip helicopters with radio altimeters.

• Change the definition of “extended over-water operations” and require additional equipment for these operations.

For all Part 135 aircraft (helicopter and fixed-wing):

• Prepare a load manifest.

• Transmit a copy of load manifest documentation to the base of operations, in lieu of preparing a duplicate copy.

• Specify requirements for retaining a copy of the load manifest in the event that the documentation is destroyed in an aircraft accident.

FAA is also proposing to require Part 91 general aviation helicopter operators to revise VFR weather minimums. The estimated cost of the proposal for the air ambulance industry is $136 million, with a total benefit of $160 million over a 10-year period. The cost for other commercial operators is $89 million, with a total benefit of $115 million over a decade.

“We can prevent accidents by preparing pilots and equipping helicopters for all of the unique flying conditions they encounter,” said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “These new rules are designed to protect passengers, patients, medical personnel and pilots.” The NPRM does not address several recommendations advocated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). Specifically, the FAA did not mandate use of night vision goggles (NVG) or autopilots, recommendations strongly supported by NTSB.

Following a decrease in the number of accidents in 2009, 2010 has seen an uptick in fatal accidents. After encouraging many of these recommendations be voluntarily complied with for years, the agency now says asking for voluntary compliance is not enough. Overall, the HEMS community’s response is that there are no big surprises in the NPRM, with many saying they are already voluntarily complying with most of the proposed requirements. In a survey conducted by FAA in 2009 with a sampling of 74 operators, 94 percent say they are utilizing risk assessment programs, 89 percent have integrated an operational control center, 41 percent have equipped or plan to equip with HTAWS and 89 percent use radar altimeters.

Notably missing from the NPRM was the requirement for the use of night vision goggles, but insiders at the FAA say requiring the use of NVGs is still a hotly debated issue at the agency. The 90-day public comment period closes on Jan. 10, 2011. (From November 2010 Rotorcraft Report)

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