FAA to research lower helicopter minimums in New York City area

 - February 5, 2007, 8:20 AM

If all goes well with a new $250,000-per-year research program the FAA is launching next month, pilots flying specially equipped rotorcraft will be able to take advantage of lower IFR approach minimums and new flight corridors to Manhattan heliports within the next few years.

According to Ken Knopp, general aviation and vertical flight research and development (R&D) manager at the FAA’s William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, N.J., Chelton Flight Systems is outfitting the center’s Sikorsky S-76 with its FlightLogic EFIS, which incorporates synthetic vision, GPS wide area augmentation system (WAAS), and highway-in-the-sky (HITS) technology to provide the pilot with a pictorial flight path around terrain and other obstacles. The aim of the research program is to determine what technology and pilot proficiency levels are required to allow the FAA to reduce IFR approach minimums for rotorcraft.

“The big picture is that we’re trying to expand helicopter IFR operations,” Knopp told AIN. “Right now the airspace doesn’t support helicopters flying IFR. Current approaches to heliports aren’t meaningful [because] the approaches only get you to a half-mile away and 400 feet, which does a helicopter pilot no good. If we want to keep [helicopter pilots] from scud-running into deteriorating conditions, we need a system that allows approaches to 250 feet.”

The second part of the program will use HITS technology to map new approaches into Manhattan’s three heliports. One of the first implementations of the FAA’s simultaneous non-interfering (SNI) airspace concept, the new NYC helicopter route structure will use allocated routes and altitudes to keep rotorcraft separate from their fixed-wing brethren with minimal ATC guidance. Knopp compared the proposed New York SNI routing to reduced vertical separation minimums applied in terminal airspace.

“We’re building a system with narrower routes and less vertical airspace protection,” Knopp said. “With helicopters, we’re taking on the biggest challenge–New York City–first. If a helicopter can transition from White Plains, N.Y., or Teterboro, N.J., to a Manhattan heliport and back without affecting fixed-wing traffic, the technology will open up other congested airspace as well, such as Los Angeles and Atlanta.”

Avionics Requirements
Operators who want to use the new routes and lower approach minimums will need to install avionics that meet a to-be-determined required navigational performance (RNP) value. Although the FAA is currently testing Chelton’s FlightLogic synthetic-vision EFIS, which compares GPS WAAS position readings to a comprehensive database to determine the appropriate terrain and object pictorials, the agency is also considering MaxViz’s enhanced-vision system, which uses infrared sensors to determine actual obstacles. Knopp says that the FAA will also consider blends of synthetic- and enhanced-vision technology when determining the RNP for the new routes.

Scheduled to kick off in the middle of next month, the R&D program likely will last for a minimum of two years before the FAA makes any permanent public changes to route structures. Still, Knopp estimates that the agency could open up a
few new routes to certain hand-picked operators within the next few months for evaluation purposes. Since pilot skills and performance will also affect the success of the program, the FAA wants to evaluate a wide range of pilots to determine how much training will be needed before pilots can fly the new routes safely.