A trio of helicopter trade associations are recommending that the FAA mandate night-vision goggles, enhanced-vision systems or IFR-only operations for all night flights of EMS helicopters. The recommendations overlap many key advisories made by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) in 2006.
The industry proposals were made one week before the NTSB held highly visible public hearings on HEMS safety last month and come on the heels of nine fatal helicopter EMS accidents since December 2007.
The Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), HAI and the Air Medical Operators Association (AMOA) made those recommendations in a jointly issued paper released January 13, and recommended that the FAA:
• Mandate helicopter recording devices;
• Prioritize and accelerate the implementation of automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast (ADS-B) infrastructure to HEMS operating environments and implementation of associated weather reporting and communications
• Produce materials for community emergency response services to address issues of “helicopter shopping”;
• Study flight-crew fatigue factors; and
• Require all HEMS operations (commercial and government) be conducted under Part 135 and encourage HEMS operators to adopt flight operational quality assurance programs.
The groups also seek congressional approval to make federal Airport Improvement Program money available for the construction of HEMS heliports, low-level special IFR-GPS routes and approaches, and automated weather observing systems at hospital heliports.
AAMS estimates that helicopters transport 400,000 patients in the U.S. annually, making the number of patients killed in HEMS accidents–five last year–statistically small. However, the crashes did give the industry a major black eye and renewed FAA and NTSB scrutiny of the HEMS industry’s policies and procedures.
While the industry groups’ recommendations were seen as a positive development in the campaign to improve HEMS safety, they could actually encourage some operators to abandon IFR operations, said Steve Hickok, whose company, Hickok & Associates, designs low-level IFR approaches and routes for the HEMS industry.
“Things like night-vision goggles are a good tool, but they are not the answer to everything because they are allowing you to operate safer in a CFIT [controlled-flight-into-terrain] environment,” said Hickok. “Whereas with the IFR capability you are basically above the CFIT environment. IFR is the only way you can operate to make sure you have the obstacle clearances you need to avoid those kinds of accidents.”
Hickok said some operators could abandon IFR altogether if lower cost technology is mandated. “When we start talking mandated night-vision goggles and TAWS, these programs have to decide if they are going to invest in IFR and stay in an IFR environment, or are they just going to [revert] to lower cost equipment?”
However, the industry groups stated that it is important for any new FAA requirements to offer a flexible menu of solutions that could be customized to a helicopter operator’s specific mission environment.