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New Rules for Helicopter Operators

On Oct. 12, 2010, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed broad new rules for helicopter operators, including air ambulances, which, if finalized, would require stricter flight rules and procedures, improved communications and training, and additional on-board safety equipment.

“This is a significant proposal that will improve the safety of many helicopter flights in the United States,” says Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “The FAA’s initiatives have helped the helicopter industry make progress on many safety issues, but it’s time to take steps towards mandating these major safety improvements.”

Under the proposed rules, operators would use the latest on-board technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles. The proposal also contains provisions which, if finalized, would require operators to use enhanced procedures for flying in challenging weather, at night and when landing in remote locations.

“We can prevent accidents by preparing pilots and equipping helicopters for all of the unique flying conditions they encounter,” says FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. “These new rules are designed to protect passengers, patients, medical personnel and pilots.”

The FAA document includes new proposals covering a variety of helicopter operators. The proposed rules would require air ambulance operators to:

• Equip with helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems (HTAWS).

• 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 their 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 their pilots in command hold an instrument rating.

The proposal also seeks comments on requirements for light-weight aircraft recording systems (LARS).

Under the proposal, all commercial helicopter operators would be required to:

• Revise IFR alternate airport weather minimums.

• Demonstrate competency in recovery from inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions.

• Equip their helicopters with radio altimeters.

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

The proposed rules would require all Part 135 aircraft, i.e. helicopter and fixed-wing on-demand operators, to:

• Prepare a load manifest.

• Transmit a copy of load manifest documentation to their 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.

In addition, the proposal would require Part 91 general aviation helicopter operators to revise the VFR weather minimums.

Since August 2004, the FAA has promoted initiatives to reduce risk for helicopter air ambulance operations. While accidents did decline in 2005 and 2006, 2008 proved to be the deadliest year on record, with six accidents that claimed 24 lives. Overall, from 1992 through 2009, 135 helicopter air ambulance accidents claimed 126 lives. From 1994 through 2008, there were also 75 commercial helicopter accidents (excluding air ambulances) that resulted in 88 fatalities.

The estimated cost of the proposal in present value for the air ambulance industry is $136 million with a total benefit of $160 million over 10 years. The cost for other commercial operators is $89 million with a total benefit of $115 million over 10 years.

The NPRM can be viewed at: http://www.faa.gov/regulations_policies/rulemaking/recently_published/.

The 90-day public comment period closes on Jan. 10, 2011.