Expert groups at the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) are designing new rules for helicopter IFR procedures and heliport construction. Developed primarily with Europe in mind, the guidelines are expected to be released sometime next year, according to ICAO officials.
ICAO’s Obstacle Clearance Panel (OCP) is developing improved helicopter IFR procedures through the use of satellite navigation equipment. The goal is for precision guidance on low-level routes to so-called “points in space.”
“Until recently, there was almost no operating helicopters under instrument flight rules in Europe,” said Yves Coutier, a French expert in the OCP. He cited operating rules and technology that is better suited for fixed-wing aircraft as the primary reasons. Moreover, he said, “helicopter pilots, without being adrenaline-addicts, have skills for flying visually in marginal weather, which airplanes shouldn’t do.”
There are lots of reasons why helicopters fly low, but not all of them are obvious. On medical flights, for example, pilots generally want to avoid higher altitudes that could impact a patient’s health. Clearly, said Coutier, there is ample justification for developing low-altitude helicopter IFR routes.
“Helicopter technology has evolved to involve more use of instruments and increased automation,” Coutier said.
The point-in-space concept has become the norm in Australia and the U.S., but not so in Europe. The idea is to design an IFR route structure that ends at a specific point close to a heliport. The crew can then continue visually a short distance to the landing point. Where a direct IFR approach would not be feasible because of obstacles, points in space can offer dramatic safety improvements. “The majority of helicopter accidents happen en route, when pilots fly VFR near the ground, in poor weather,” Coutier said.
So far, points in space on IFR routes have used GPS technology. ICAO now wants to reap the benefits of augmented systems, such as WAAS (wide-area augmentation system) or the European EGNOS (European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Service), which yields even better precision. These systems offer both lateral and vertical precision navigation, enhancing GPS’s capabilities.
But all operators’ needs are not the same, and depending on which side of the Atlantic they live on, they’ll want different capabilities. In Europe, for example, noise concerns are leading to calls for helicopters to fly steeper approaches to points in space. U.S. operators are interested primarily in improvements in lateral guidance.
The OCP is working on a dual standard that would address both situations. Experts are writing one rule for “lateral guidance only,” and another that includes lateral and vertical guidance. “Each country or operator will use its preferred rule,” Coutier said.
Simultaneously, ICAO is working out new rules for heliport layout and construction. According to Christelle Ruan, a Paris-based technical advisor inside the ICAO’s heliport design working group, one of the biggest changes under consideration involves the size of the final approach and takeoff (FATO) area.
For helicopters lighter than 7,000 pounds (FAR Part 27 helicopters), the FATO area will be allowed to be smaller.
Discussions are ongoing, too, regarding markings, lighting and the airspace surrounding a heliport. All these in-development rules are targeted at helicopters with one main rotor. Only land-based heliports will be affected.