ATM Modernization, Business & GA, Military

NextGen and Helicopters: Where are the Benefits?

By by Woodrow Bellamy III | February 1, 2016
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Over the last year, the FAA has actively engaged with the industry to address any and all avionics issues associated with Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast (ADS-B) and other helicopter avionics concerns as part of its NextGen airspace modernization program. But, is the agency providing this segment of the aviation industry with the same level of projected benefits and safety improvements projected to be derived through NextGen avionics equipage for airliners and other fixed-wing aircraft? So far, that has not been the case, but the FAA is looking to turn things around before it’s too late.


Helicopter operators in the United States face the same Jan. 1, 2020 mandate for ADS-B Out as the rest of the industry. However, Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) rotorcraft are also required to become equipped with Helicopter Terrain Awareness Warning System (HTAWS) and Flight Data Monitoring Systems (FDMS) by 2017 and 2018, respectively. Unlike ADS-B, the FAA does not directly associate these mandated technologies with the overarching goals of its NextGen program, and therefore doesn’t have a set of performance metrics and stated goals in order to show operators what is derived by equipping.

In fact, the FAA’s updated NextGen Priorities Joint Implementation Plan, published in October 2015, does not mention the word helicopter or rotorcraft anywhere in the text.

“The biggest challenge previously was just the timeline to do the [Standard Type Certificate] STC program; it’s a very arduous, detailed process to get the STC. Now, really it doesn’t matter what you have to submit, and what the applicant has to do does not vary a whole lot whether its an ADS-B installation, a single pilot [Instrument Flight Rules] IFR installation or a major STC program, the steps are all still the same and it’s an arduous process,” says Milton Geltz, managing director at Metro Aviation.

Metro is a multi-faceted operator and helicopter completions center with a fleet of 130 helicopters operating throughout the United States. Over the past year, Geltz says the agency has relaxed some of its processes for approving mandated equipage.

“I think the FAA figured out that they had to really relax the reigns on the [Flight Standards District Offices] FSDO and the approval processes to meet the 2020 compliance mandate. So, that’s flowing pretty well now under that AFS-300 guidance. All that is for ADS-B Out, the ADS-B In solution is still an STC program,” says Geltz.

Other operators, such as Erickson Aviation, are also finding it easier to progress through the FAA’s approval process. Erickson operates S-64 and Bell 214 helicopters for customers throughout Europe and in Australia, China, Africa, the United States and Latin America. The company acquired the Type Certificate (TC) for the S-64 in 1992 and has manufactured, maintained, operated and leased the aircraft to customers throughout the world who require crane lifting, construction and firefighting services. As the OEM, operator and maintenance center for the S-64 and certain Bell helicopters, Erickson in August 2015 obtained certification for S-64 ADS-B Out and In modifications with upgraded GPS units and new HTAWS and is currently in the process of introducing the upgrade package across the global S-64 Aircrane fleet.

“The FAA has some very strong requirements that you have to show including having opposing aircraft that you fly at; there’s an [Advisory Circular] AC that describes a lot of this. We went through a very tough flight test program with the FAA proving out all these systems and they do it very well. That was the metamorphosis of that project. It grew out of the need to upgrade and replace the GPS, and by that we realized the abilities of the systems now would just fit marvelously into the machine and get us ready for the next generation,” says Erickson Chief Engineer Ian Gibson of the package, which provides both ADS-B Out and Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) operations HTAWS compliance.

Suppliers such as Applied Avionics are also seeing increased demand for their digital to discrete converter products from OEMs, operators and installation centers to provide less expensive compliance with some aspects of the mandate. For example, the Applied Avionics NexSys ARINC 429 to Discrete Signal Converter (SR429) converts data bits associated with a single ARINC 429 label and dissects them into discrete output pins. For ADS-B applications, the converter resolves the mandate requirement for displaying a failure message to the pilot if the solution is not working.

“One of the biggest reasons we have received demand for this from helicopter operators and other segments of the industry is that the ADS-B mandate requires that two failures be presented associated with your solution. There is the ADS-B Out failure notification and the transponder failure,” says Steve Edwards, vice president of product development for Applied Avionics, which manufactures the SR429. “The failure from the transponders discrete out is already there but the polarity of the signal is wrong, so actually we have got customers putting our solid state relay right inside the indicators to condense it and simplify things. There is no software or firmware in the product, the certification issues associated with DO-254 and DO-178 are not required so it makes the installation and the application for the installation less costly.”

NextGen Certification Challenges

412EPI Cockpit. Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopters.

However, the FAA is actively addressing challenges facing the helicopter industry and operators. One of the biggest issues that needs to be addressed for Part 27 and Part 29 operators, some of which are impacted by mandated technology, is the determination of previously installed equipment meeting mandated performance requirements.

“The Technical Standard Order (TSO) for HTAWS is not the issue. A lot of operators had HTAWS installed back before we were calling it HTAWS, and feature the exact same equipment that is required as part of the 2017 mandate, but they were installed before the provisions for the mandate were established. Right now, the FAA has no way of determining out in the field that these types of solutions that are the exact same equipment as what’s listed for HTAWS compliance would actually meet the [Minimum Operational Performance Standards] MOPS and [Technical Standard Order] TSO requirements. Currently, there is no mechanism for any type of relief on grandfathering in the previously installed system in some way,” says Geltz.

The Metro Aviation team has a meeting scheduled with the FAA at Heli Expo to discuss this and other issues. Geltz also notes the complexities of complying with the FAA’s other helicopter airspace mandate, as Part 135 helicopters must be equipped with Flight Data Monitoring Systems (FDMS) by April 23, 2018. FAA defines the FDMS as a system with the ability to record the helicopter’s flight performance and operational data, and is requiring it in an effort to enhance operational safety and provide more in-depth post flight analysis for civil rotorcraft operations. According to Geltz, there is more clarity needed for this rule.

“We are in the business of manufacturing data requirements that far exceeds the FAA’s expectations for the [Helicopter Emergency Medical Services] HEMS operators. However, there’s still a lot of operators that don’t fully understand what the FAA’s intentions are,” says Geltz. “With that rule, the FAA seems to be saying ‘show us what you’d like to use and we’ll tell you whether it’s approved or not.’ There are still a lot of operators that are not understanding or maybe taking a less-than-advisable path to meeting that air medical requirement. Our data monitoring does everything including tracking and communications that a [Cockpit Voice and Flight Data Recorder] CVFDR would. So it’s compliant with the rule, but there are others that are considering the flight tracking solution that they have will meet the rule and that may or may not be true.”

Another major frustration faced by Metro and other helicopter operators are delays associated with waiting on certification and approvals. According to Geltz, non-safety-related certification timelines as prioritized by the Aircraft Engineering Division (AIR-100) document sometimes take as long as 18 months to gain approval, due to delays associated with waiting on the FAA at various stages, such as test plan approvals or flight tests.

Erickon’s Gibson agrees, although he feels the FAA is going through a learning curve with some of the newer technologies that it is currently receiving requests to approve. A learning curve that, once completed, he believes will lead to quicker approvals and less of a hands-on approach from the agency.

“This is very new for them in terms of approving a complete installation that features ADS-B Out, ADS-B In, HTAWS and the FDM equipment,” he says. “It was a big combined effort by two or three FAA offices, it went very well and I think they’ll get quicker at it once they realize what the technology is capable of and what it’s not capable of, which I think there is a little bit of fear of ensuring what exactly are the safety issues that this hardware can introduce that we don’t know about it. So, I think their hands-on will decline; we won’t have to go through this the same way the next time. But when we go to do this on our other platforms… this has proven in the past they become less involved the more familiar they’re with it.”

OEM Upgrade Paths

Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation.

Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) have also introduced and are currently exploring upgrade paths for operators of their legacy aircraft that still have a decade or more of flight operational capability left. Catherine Ferrie, senior vice president of engineering at Bell Helicopter says her company has been increasingly working with the General Aviation Manufacturers Association (GAMA) and reaching out to Bell operators through other industry forums to make sure everyone knows the available options to upgrade. However, Bell is not prescribing one fix over another.

“Most of our helicopters are active in [Emergency Medical Services] EMS, mostly 407s and 429s and some of the older 412s can do that so those that have existing capabilities, such as the 429 and 429 EPI, have several options for installation out there on the market,” says Ferrie. “We don’t like to prescribe, everyone has to decide as they configure their aircraft into unique layouts and how they customize their aircraft and so something may work for one and not for the other.”

In 2015, Bell published a guide entitled “Meeting NextGen Airspace Requirements (ADS-B Reporting) for Bell Helicopter Models,” noting that all of its factory solutions are 1090 ES type ADS-B Out capability to provide a solution that is useable across international airspace. The United States is the only region supporting ADS-B Out at both the 1090 and 978 MHz frequencies. The company has no specific plans to develop ADS-B solutions for the Bell 204, 205, 212, 222, 214ST and 214B, 427, and Huey II (UH-1). Within its guidance, “Transponders, based on what kind of cockpits and what kind of upgrades they’ve made there may be some software or wiring or moving of equipment depending on where they’ve installed stuff and making sure that you do not have interferences or any type of EMI issues of that nature. We would help with that type of discussion so that they make the right decision,” says Ferrie.

MedLink AIR is the emergency medical helicopter for Gundersen Health System. It can be airborne in minutes and has a service area encompassing a 150-mile radius of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation.

Out in Europe, Airbus Helicopters has introduced similar upgrade paths for its legacy helicopters that are still in service. “The new H145 is fully capable of ADS-B Out, this will be a standard feature on the upgraded avionics coming up early next year. The EC145 equipped with dual GNS430 would need a replacement of the FMS with GNS430W and the replacement of the transponder with a GTX430. For the EC145 equipped with CMA9000 would require the replacement of the transponder with TDR94. Early versions of the BK117 family have not been investigated regarding a retrofit solution,” says Dragos Grigorincu, program manager for the H145. “H145 is in standard configuration already prepared for nearly all PBN procedures. EC145 (BK117 C2) also has capabilities for [Performance-Based Navigation] PBN procedures, including [Satellite-Based Augmentation System] SBAS. Retrofits are possible. ADS-B In is on the road map of H145 avionics further development, the availability probably in the coming years, also pending on the final regulation. Currently, we don’t see a demand from the operators but we are prepared to offer configuration based upgrades on request.”

Woodrow Bellamy IIIis the associate editor for Avionics Magazine.412EPI Cockpit. Photo courtesy of Bell Helicopters.Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation.MedLink AIR is the emergency medical helicopter for Gundersen Health System. It can be airborne in minutes and has a service area encompassing a 150-mile radius of La Crosse, Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of Metro Aviation.

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