Helo groups criticize EMS NPRM

 - January 30, 2011, 8:00 AM

Last month key industry players expressed strong concerns about proposed FAA rule changes for helicopter operations, particular those governing emergency medical services (EMS) providers.

The helicopter industry, and especially the EMS stakeholders, has been working with the FAA for years on developing changes to the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs) designed to improve safety. Initially, when the long-awaited notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) was released last October, the leaders of these groups praised the prospective changes.

This view has subsequently evolved. While continuing to voice support for regulatory reform designed to enhance safety, the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), the Helicopter Association International (HAI) and the National EMS Pilots Association (Nemspa) all expressed concerns about several provisions of the rule changes and/or their methods of implementation. In formal responses submitted before the January 10 expiration of the comment period, they expressed a clear preference that the FAA, in consultation with industry, return to the drawing board on several key provisions.

Night-vision Goggles and HTaws

The proposed rule mandates the installation of helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems (HTaws) on all EMS helicopters, while the industry would like night-vision goggles (NVGs) to qualify as an alternate means of compliance. “HAI is disappointed that night-vision goggles were basically overlooked by this rulemaking proposal. NVG technology is the single most effective device available to reduce controlled flight into terrain [CFIT] accidents.”

Nemspa said mandating HTaws was technologically risky and could be of questionable benefit, noting, “It has been truly tested and proven only in the high-altitude IFR environment by fixed-wing aircraft” and that “minimal data currently exists for its use by the low-altitude helicopter community.” AAMS said it did not view HTaws and NVGs as “an either/or proposition,” but noted that current NVG standards were based on outdated technology. While supporting HTaws it expressed concern that the NPRM did not contain measures that would allow continued operations when HTaws is “temporarily inoperable.”

IFR and Part 135

One of the more curious sections of the proposed rule calls for all helicopter EMS pilots to hold instrument ratings, but not demonstrate currency. HAI suggests this change has little practical value for enhancing safety. However, the groups did agree that the requirement for pilots to demonstrate the ability to escape IMC and handle reduced-visibility hazards such as whiteout was prudent. Other rule changes regarding IFR operations drew strong criticism.

The proposed rule would allow IFR operations into and out of locations without weather reporting provided they are within 15 nm of an approved weather reporting facility relative to the destination. HAI said the provision was fatally flawed because it would encourage VFR flights into MVFR, as opposed to under IFR, in situations when the weather reporting requirements could not be met. The groups want the FAA to allow the option of using area forecasts when the 15-nm standard cannot be satisfied.

Another controversial provision requires helicopters to be operated under Part 135 whenever medical crew are aboard, regardless of whether there is a patient passenger. The groups noted that many Hems operators already employ Part 135 standards with regard to duty time and weather minimums.

However, they expressed concern that this provision would have unintended consequences such as limiting the common practice of IFR proficiency training during non-patient flights and invalidating Part 91 GPS approaches that have been designed for air medical programs.

The groups made further suggestions with regard to sections of the proposed rule dealing with requirement changes for autopilots, overwater operations, manifest reporting and pre-flight risk analysis, while re-affirming their commitment to continue to work with the FAA to enhance the safety of their members’ operations.