The U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) today issued a final rule that requires helicopter operators, including air ambulances, to have stricter flight rules and procedures, improved communications, training, and additional on-board safety equipment. The rule represents the most significant improvements to helicopter safety in decades and responds to government’s and industry’s concern over continued risk in helicopter operations.
“This is a landmark rule for helicopter safety,” said Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “These improvements will better prepare pilots and better equip helicopters, ensuring a higher level of safety for passengers and crew.”
All U.S. helicopter operators, including air ambulances, are required to use stricter flying procedures in bad weather. This will provide a greater margin of safety by reducing the probability of collisions with terrain, obstacles or other aircraft.
Within 60 days, all operators will be required to use enhanced procedures for flying in challenging weather, at night, and when landing in remote locations. Within three years, helicopter air ambulances must use the latest on-board technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles, and within four years, they must be equipped with flight data monitoring systems.
“This rule is a significant advancement in helicopter safety,” said FAA Administrator Michael Huerta. “This rule will help reduce risk and help pilots make good safety decisions through the use of better training, procedures, and equipment.”
Under the new rule, all Part 135 helicopter operators are required to:
- Equip their helicopters with radio altimeters.
- Have occupants wear life preservers and equip helicopters with a 406 MHz Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) when a helicopter is operated beyond power-off glide distance from the shore.
- Use higher weather minimums when identifying an alternate airport in a flight plan.
- Require that pilots are tested to handle flat-light, whiteout, and brownout conditions and demonstrate competency in recovery from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions.
In addition, under the new rule, all air ambulance operators are required to:
- Equip with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS).
- Equip with a flight data monitoring system within four years.
- Establish operations control centers if they are certificate holders with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances.
- Institute pre-flight risk-analysis programs.
- Ensure their pilots in command hold an instrument rating.
- Ensure pilots identify and document the highest obstacle along the planned route before departure.
- Comply with 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.
- Conduct the flight using Part 135 weather requirements and flight crew time limitation and rest requirements when medical personnel are on board.
- Conduct safety briefings or training for medical personnel.
Since August 2004, the FAA has promoted initiatives to reduce risk for helicopter air ambulance operations (See FAA Fact Sheet). While accidents did decline in the years following that effort, 2008 proved to be the deadliest year on record with five accidents that claimed 21 lives. The FAA examined helicopter air ambulance accidents from 1991 through 2010 and determined 62 accidents that claimed 125 lives could have been mitigated by today’s rule. While developing the rule, the FAA considered 20 commercial helicopter accidents from 1991 through 2010 (excluding air ambulances) that resulted in 39 fatalities. From 2011 through 2013, there were seven air ambulance accidents resulting in 19 fatalities and seven commercial helicopter accidents that claimed 20 lives.
The estimated cost of the final rule in present value for the air ambulance industry is $224 million with a total benefit of $347 million over 10 years. The cost for other commercial operators is $19 million with a total benefit of $83 million over 10 years. There is no cost for any operators to use new Class G airspace weather minimums for visual flying but the benefit is $147 million over 10 years.
The rule responds to the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 and National Transportation Safety Board recommendations.
> Read the FAA Final Rule on Helicopter Air Ambulance, Commercial Helicopter, and Part 91 Helicopter Operations