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Thursday, April 1, 2004

A New FAA Approach?

James T. McKenna

 

Do more cooperative times lay ahead for operators seeking guidance and signoffs from the FAA on aircraft and operations upgrades such as use of night-vision goggles? The head of the FAA arm that oversees helicopters says so, and many in industry would like to set their skepticism aside and believe him.

Dave Downey, manager of the agency's Fort Worth, Texas-based Rotorcraft Directorate told Rotor & Wing he wants to work with the helicopter community on ways to improve the safety and utility of operations. EMS is among the top priorities for that initiative, he said.

"If something can help operators and make operations safer, we've got to find a way to make it happen."

Downey and members of his staff were to brief operators on this new initiative at the Helicopter Association International's annual Heli-Expo last month in Las Vegas. On the agenda for their briefing was clarification of the requirements for obtaining FAA approval of night-vision systems.

The agency has been developing formal guidance on night-vision certification. The process of gaining that certification is more complicated than the usual interaction with the FAA. In addition to the typical problem of figuring out how a regional FAA inspector's interpretation may differ from Washington's, operators must get separate certifications for their aircraft installation, their training program and their operations specifications.

The night-vision guidance may not be officially completed by Heli-Expo, Downey said, but attendees should be able to get a clear idea of what it will say.

Such a briefing is timely, as operator interest in night-vision systems is growing. As an example, the University of Utah's AirMed program recently had its Bell 407 equipped at Texas Aviation Services for cockpit use of ITT Night Vision ANVIS 9 Omni goggles. Crewmembers in the back of the aircraft have long used earlier-generation goggles, said Ken Matthews, the program's director and chief nurse, but it was time to upgrade the flight deck.

One reason for that decision was Air Method's recent acquisition of Rocky Mountain Helicopters, he said. Air Methods is a longtime vendor for AirMed, and it continues to provide flight crews and aircraft. (In addition to the 407, AirMed operates a Bell 206 L3 with a power package, a Bell 430, and two Pilatus PC12s.) The acquisition brought former Rocky Mountain people into the operation "with a lot of experience in getting night-vision programs up and running," Matthews said.

He expects the night-vision goggles to be "a huge benefit in dark, rural areas we serve." By helping pilots maintain visual reference at night in remote areas, the goggles will enable them to fly safely at lower elevations. At elevations above 14,000 ft. MSL, the reduction of a few hundred feet above ground level can make a big difference for patients suffering a respiratory emergency, he said. AirMed performs about 40 percent of its missions at night.

The AirMed mods are part of a program Air Methods set up with Texas Aviation to upgrade night-vision systems in aircraft it owns and operates. In addition to the 407, the completion center, based in Fort Worth, has obtained supplemental type certificates for Air Methods' AS350 B3. It is working on an STC for Air Methods' AS350 B/B1/B2/BA fleet and plans to pursue night-vision certification for its Bell 412s and 430s. One person who seems anxious to believe the FAA is finally ready to back night-vision systems is Bob Cox, Texas Aviation's vice president of operations.

"Users are chewing at the bit to get into night-vision, especially law enforcement and EMS operations," he said. The falling cost of such systems and the growing acceptance of their use among aviators "has created a great ground swell."

A Boom in India?

Aeromedical services are a new and growing business in India, at least according to one provider of such services there.

Deccan Aviation is one of India's largest helicopter charter companies. It does helicopter tourism, electronic newsgathering, offshore support and survey work, among other things. It also reportedly has a deal to launch a scheduled helicopter airline in Sri Lanka. The company recently was profiled by the newspaper India Times, which quoted Deccan's managing director, Capt. G.R. Gopinath, as saying 10 percent of the 4,500 hr. Deccan's helicopter fleet flew last year was devoted to EMS missions.

Deccan reportedly has arrangements with the insurance company New India Assurance and with hospitals and medical services throughout India.

Until recently, aeromedical services were unheard of in that nation, the world's seventh largest and home to more than 1 billion people.

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