FAA To Issue More Guidance on Public-use Aircraft

 - December 15, 2011, 12:43 PM

The FAA is writing a new Advisory Circular (AC) on public-use aircraft and a draft will be released for comment next year, according to John Allen, FAA director of flight standards, who spoke before a two-day NTSB meeting on the topic last month.

Meanwhile, the Helicopter Association International (HAI) is putting together a working group on the topic with all affected stakeholders to make recommendations to the FAA. HAI president Matt Zuccaro told AIN that the working group’s first meeting will be held in February at Heli-Expo 2012.

The NTSB has been trying to remove the regulatory fog surrounding public-use aircraft in the wake of the fatal crash of a Carson Helicopters S-61 under lease to the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 2008. The accident investigation uncovered numerous problems with the aircraft’s paperwork.

The NTSB maintained that these discrepancies should have been uncovered by a supervising agency. The USFS contract mandated that Carson abide by Part 135 standards. However, because the aircraft was considered “public use,” the local FAA FSDO maintained it was the responsibility of the USFS to assure flight safety. At the NTSB’s public hearing on the crash in 2010, Board members were clearly frustrated with these muddled lines of responsibility.

In its final report on the accident, the NTSB recommended that the FAA “develop and implement a surveillance program specifically for 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR) Part 135 operators with aircraft that can operate both as public aircraft and as civil aircraft to maintain continual oversight ensuring compliance with” Part 135 requirements (A-10-149); and “take appropriate actions to clarify” FAA authority “over public aircraft, as well as identify and document where such oversight responsibilities reside in the absence of FAA authority (A-10-150).”

Guidance Needs Frequent Revision

FAA’s Allen acknowledged that there is still confusion on the issue. “This is a subject I’ve been beating my brains out on for the last six or seven years,” he said, while seeming to caution that the already overtaxed FAA would be hard-pressed to assume oversight of public-use aircraft and missions. “It is outside how we are trained, budgeted and staffed,” he said.

Allen said previous FAA attempts to provide clarity on the issue had created “confusion and obfuscation” and that he hoped the new AC would cover roughly 80 percent of all public-use missions.

“Will it cover everything? No,” he said. “It is a complex issue. The statute is hard to understand.”

Allen said it is important for government agencies operating public-use aircraft, either directly with their own aircraft or by contracting private aircraft, “to understand that they have a responsibility for safety assurance. There is no free lunch.”

Adding to the miasma of confusion surrounding the issue, Allen cautioned private operators, “A contract with a government entity does not entitle that aircraft to public status. That has to be actively declared” to the local FSDO. Allen said the new AC “would provide more guidance on that” and he anticipated the AC would be a “living document” with frequent revisions.

“There are many nuances to this whole thing. There are aircraft that operate civil one day and public the next then back to civil. We understand that,” he said. In those cases, he added, “We have agreed to leave them on the ops spec [operations specification] of the civil certificate, so they don’t have to come on and off and create too much of a workload.” But Allen said that some operations could require a case-by-case analysis. “They might have a camera mount on an airplane and they take it off–it’s a bolt-on thing and it’s nothing. For others a conformity inspection might be required.”

Stakeholder Input Needed

Allen encouraged operators who are confused or have specific concerns to contact the FAA. “If you have a question, pick up the phone and call us. A big frustration is not getting people to talk about this, ask questions and find a way forward.”

HAI’s Zuccaro thinks the issue is less complicated than most believe and could be resolved by a working group of stakeholders.

“You have to analyze the real situation that you have” he said. “I’ve been really frustrated listening to the perception of what is going on with public aircraft. The majority of government aircraft that are out there meet FAR Part 91. The pilots are certified and qualified, and the aircraft has an airworthiness certificate and is being maintained in an approved program. The commercial operators are already under [FAA] surveillance, so what is the big issue here?

“If you assume that the majority of the fleet on both sides of this fence [public and private] are already in compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations, it is not much of a stretch to assume that the FAA should have oversight under the FARs,” Zuccaro continued. “The majority of the missions being flown by government aircraft and private owner contractors are being flown civil under Parts 91, 135, and all the other civil regulations.”

There are probably not many missions “that are tripping everybody up,” Zuccaro said, later citing repelling, co-mingling passengers and hazmats on fire-fighting missions, hoisting people from point-to-point and aerial application of fire retardant near congested areas as examples of things that typically fall outside the FARs, “but are being done safely by the tens of thousands right now.”

He suggests getting “everybody in the same room and identifying those missions. And the mandate is that the FAA is going to take oversight of these operations and we all are going to operate under the FARs. The world will be a better place. You will have commonality, a standard and a focus. At least, you will have a base certification for all of these missions. I believe that every one of them can be done under the FARs right now.

“This is a problem that can be solved,” Zuccaro said. “In my mind there is no doubt about it.”