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FAA seeks broad new operating rules for air ambulances, others

The FAA, citing the need to better protect passengers, patients, medical personnel, and pilots, has proposed broad new rules for air ambulances and other helicopter operators. Numerous provisions would impose new VFR visibility requirements in Class G airspace, change communications and training standards, and add on-board safety equipment.

“This is a significant proposal that will improve the safety of many helicopter flights in the United States,” said Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in a statement on Oct. 8. “The FAA’s initiatives have helped the helicopter industry make progress on many safety issues, but it’s time to take steps towards mandating these major safety improvements.”

The proposal would require operators to use “the latest on-board technology and equipment to avoid terrain and obstacles.” Flying in difficult weather, at night, or landing at remote locations would mandate use of “enhanced procedures.” Operators would have to establish pre-flight risk analysis programs.

The 133-page rulemaking document calls for revising weather minima under FAR 91.155, which prescribes visibility minima for helicopters operating under Part 91 in Class G airspace. The regulation currently requires helicopters operating under VFR, at 1,200 feet or less above the surface, to remain clear of clouds and operate at a speed that permits the pilot adequate opportunity to see any air traffic or obstruction in time to avoid a collision, it said.

The FAA seeks to change 91.155(b)(1) to “a minimum visibility standard of ½ statute mile during the day, and 1 statute mile at night, for helicopters operating under VFR at 1,200 feet or less above the surface in Class G airspace.” The proposed rule would keep the current requirement to remain clear of clouds.

Numerous other provisions include requiring that air ambulance operators install helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems (HTAWS), operate under FAR Part 135 “when medical personnel are on board,” establish operations control centers (if they are certificate holders with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances), and conduct safety briefings for medical personnel. They would have to ensure that all pilots-in-command were instrument-rated.

All commercial helicopter operators would face new operational requirements to revise IFR alternate weather minimums, equip aircraft with radio altimeters, and “demonstrate competency in recovery from inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions.” And all Part 135 helicopter and fixed-wing operators would have to comply with new rules for preparing and documenting load manifests.

The FAA says that the rule follows its promotion of several initiatives to reduce the risk of helicopter ambulance operations, an effort launched in August 2004.

“Many of these proposed requirements currently are found in agency guidance publications and would address National Transportation Safety Board recommendations,” it said in the NPRM.

Public comment will be open on the proposed rulemaking until Jan. 10, 2011.

Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.

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