Regulators Justify New Helicopter Rule, Address Safety

 - April 1, 2014, 5:25 AM
After years of prodding from the NTSB and extensive, consultation with the industry, the FAA released an omnibus rule that tightens the equipment, training and operational requirements for helicopter EMS providers. The NPRM was issued in 2010

Top FAA regulators justified the new omnibus helicopter safety rule at February’s Heli-Expo convention. John Duncan, director of FAA flight standards, and Kim Smith, manager of the rotorcraft directorate, said the new rule is necessary in light of a recent surge in helicopter accidents, and they are confident that it will contribute to a significant reduction in the accident rate.

Beyond that, Duncan hinted at a philosophical shift within the agency–one that he attributes in part to budget constraints–that he said will shift the FAA’s focus from enforcing regulations to “fixing the problem” and identifying and mitigating risks. “Our budgets are smaller than they used to be,” he said.

“The traditional role of an aviation inspector was to inspect safety into the system. We haven’t been able to do that for a long time. We have to use safety management systems and risk-based decision making. It requires cultural changes within both the aviation community and the FAA,” he said, calling for more transparency between “the operator and the regulator.” That said, however, Duncan also warned that enforcement is still appropriate to deal with “intentional, non-compliant behavior” on the part of operators who are “not cooperative.” He noted that the agency has a backlog of 4,000 cases that are three years old and that the outcome of those cases is going to depend largely “on the behavior of the operators involved” to voluntarily take curative measures.

“The top priority for us is continued operational safety,” Duncan said. “Then we have to have adequate standards to make sure operations within the NAS [national airspace system] are safe. And then there is certificate management, doing the kinds of things that support operations, and new certification.”

Duncan said the agency faces a climate that triggered more demands from other branches of government, particularly Congress. “Many of the rules that we are talking about today and in the past have been mandated by Congress,” he noted.

He said the FAA is working to make its “guidance” to operators “more consistent” across regions and encouraging agency personnel to seek guidance from the agency’s headquarters to deal with conflicting information in the field.

“Things are changing,” Duncan said. “And the change is accelerating. We have to be more effective in using our resources and we have to be more agile.”

Improving the Accident Rate

Noting that Fiscal Year 2013 (October 2012 to September 2013) “was one of the worst years we have had for rotorcraft accidents,” with the highest number of fatalities in 20 years, Smith said safety is the rotorcraft directorate’s top priority. She said having helicopter safety on the NTSB’s top ten “most wanted” list for 2014 is an “opportunity” to bring resources together to serve all stakeholders.

Smith said dogmatic adherence to the FAA’s “regulatory structure” actually creates a barrier to improved safety in some instances, including the voluntary installation of new safety equipment in aircraft. She said one of the ways to eliminate the barrier is to expand the FAA’s Non-Required Safety Enhancement Equipment policy to cover more equipment. “If you show us that the equipment enhances safety, we can reduce some of the regulatory burden” on items such as autopilots and fuel systems. “You’re going to see us changing the way we look at things and make sure that we are right there with you as enhancers of safety,” she said.

Smith said the FAA soon will formally begin regulatory review of the helicopter certification standards under Parts 27 and 29, again with the goal of ultimately enhancing safety. “You, like us, think those rules are way too antiquated,” she said, ruling nothing out from “a few major revisions to an entire re-write.”

“The new rule has to be agile enough that we can deal with any technology brought to the table,” she said. “In doing that, we can absolutely enhance safety, allow innovative new technology to get in and reduce the regulatory burden. More safety at less cost. It’s a win-win for all of us, but industry must step forward, carry the bulk of the weight, and really help us.” Smith said the key is “industry working together” to propose unified solutions, as opposed to differing ones that add to the agency’s workload.