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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Public Service: It’s About Safety

By Lee Benson

In my last Public Service column (“Orphan Treatment,” January 2012, page 64), I wrote about the NTSB Public Aircraft Safety meeting on December 1 in Washington, D.C. To recap, this meeting was held to discuss the proposed efforts by some that may lead to the elimination of public aircraft operations. Some may think that statement a little beyond politically correct. After all, it’s all about safety isn’t it, really?

Since that conference I attended the Tangent Link Aerial Firefighting Conference held in Sacramento, Calif. in January. At the conference someone whom I respect approached me about my previous article. This gentleman was concerned that I had cast the proceedings in perhaps to negative a light. He felt that the public safety operators had made greater progress with NTSB and FAA than I portrayed. As I promised my friend, I have reread the article attempting to see his point, but failed. I will restate that the comments by John Allen, the Director of Flight Standards, were well-balanced.

NTSB Board Member Mark Rosekind revealed a genuine professional interest in understanding the issue and Matt Zuccaro had several good suggestions. But I think that the regulators as a whole fail to understand the unique responsibilities and challenges that face many public operators. These responsibilities generate mission profiles that are well outside typical commercial operations. These profiles, in turn, generate equipment and flight technique requirements that are not normally associated with commercial operations. There are those that hold the position that the public operators should hold a FAR Part 135 cert and then apply for exemptions for those flights that fall outside of the regulations pertaining to normal commercial operations. I know a few commercial operators out there who are sounding a collective, “Yes,” when they hear the exemption point of view. To them I proffer the following points. Where would the use of night vision goggles (NVGs) in the commercial EMS market be if the public operators had not moved that ball forward? Nowhere, is the answer. In the mid-1990s when the first public agencies started moving toward NVG flight, the FAA’s position regarding the technology was completely opposed, with the chance that an exemption would have been allowed at nil. Rocky Mountain Helicopters should also get credit for promoting the use of NVG. Their efforts including legal action in the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals in 1992 led to the first commercial NVG flights in 1999. That’s the point—Rocky won its case in 1992 and it took until 1999 to move forward.

When public agencies recognized the need for swift water rescue techniques in the Los Angeles basin, that required hovering over a stream moving at 35 miles per hour with a rescuer suspended on an uncertified rope system—remind me again of what you think the chances are that the FAA would have written an exemption. Here’s the deal: operations like this and others save lives every day. There are risks involved, yes, but there’s a risk getting out of bed. What I didn’t say loudly enough in my last column is that the public agencies need to spread this word loud and clear. I know that there are a few public operators that have spent the time and resources to engage their representatives by traveling to Washington, D.C., and making their voices heard—but a few are not enough. Those of you working for public operations that employ certified aircraft and whose mission profile is consistent with the FARs should be just as concerned. What happened to the requirements to serve and protect your constituents after 9/11? I know of several agencies that have embraced equipment and tactics that can only be accomplished with out-of-the-FAR-box operations and equipment.

Manufacturers also need to consider this issue. I’ve heard OEMs begrudge surplus aircraft and therefore public operations in the past because they weren’t able to sell new aircraft. Today, I think that concern has been mitigated by the steady move by many past public operators of surplus equipment towards new certified equipment. How many of those programs do you think could have proceeded directly from no aircraft to new or used certified aircraft? Many spent several years of budget to bring these aircraft up to flying condition. Yes, they may have spent as much as buying a used aircraft in the first place but the one-year budget wasn’t there. I could go on about the amount of non-certified systems that have been tested on public aircraft, etc., but I hope that you see the other side of this coin by now!

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