Helicopter Safety: Part 2 – Compliance Considerations

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Helicopter Safety: Part 2 – Compliance Considerations

This is a post by guest author John Kirk, safety director for EMS Air Services of New York, Inc. John was asked to contribute to this blog because of his expertise in helicopter safety. Any thoughts expressed below are entirely John’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc.

This business aviation blog post continues from our article last week, titled "Helicopter Safety: Part 1 – New Regulations to Mitigate Risk."

While these new helicopter safety rules go into effect April 22, 2014, there will be something of a grace period in terms of record-keeping and rule implementation. Best practice, at this point, is to carefully review all aspects of the new rules and develop a compliance plan.
The following is an overview of what you need to know:

1. Greatest impact will be on air ambulance and charter operators

While these new rules almost exclusively impact air ambulance and Part 135 charter (non-scheduled commercial) operations – particularly air ambulance operators with 10 or more helicopters – there will also be an impact on Part 91 private non-revenue helicopter operations. It is important to note that only stated weather minima will impact private helicopter operators as none of the other rules will apply. On the other hand, if you are a Part 135 operator with only a medical crew onboard, you will now need to comply with the new weather minima.

2. Unique conditions in the vertical takeoff and landing world

Helicopter air ambulances operate under unique conditions. Their flights are often time-sensitive, which puts pressure on the pilots. Helicopter air ambulances fly at low altitudes and under varied weather conditions. They must often land at unfamiliar, remote, or unimproved sites with hazards like trees, buildings, towers, wires, and uneven terrain. In an emergency, many patients will not have a choice of whether they want to be transported in a helicopter or not. They may be in a medical condition that prevents them from making decisions about transportation or indicating what they want. They cannot choose between competing carriers because the company that responds to the scene may be either the first one called or the only one in the area. For these reasons, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is establishing more stringent safety regulations to protect patients, medical personnel, flight crew members, and other passengers onboard helicopter air ambulances.

3. Compliance with new rules

Although the new rules become effective April 22, 2014, each rule may have a different implementation date further down the line. For this reason, it is important to review the actual publication and verbiage used.

4. OCC requirements

Operators with 10 or more air ambulance helicopters will need to have an Operational Control Center (OCC) as part of the new regulations. While it is debatable whether or not this will actually make helicopter operations safer, the OCC is a regulatory requirement. Operators with fewer than 10 helicopters will have to implement new operational control functions, but the operators may accomplish this without having a physical OCC. Operators will need to determine and specify qualified individual(s) to take on the operational control function, and the FAA will need to confirm its approval of your actions.

5. Preflight considerations

When considering the FAA-approved Preflight Risk Assessment requirement for helicopter air ambulance operators, an important point to remember is to make it meaningful yet non-imposing. On the fixed-wing side, many operators utilize a similar Flight Risk Assessment Tool (FRAT), but there are industry-wide complaints as to the burden it imposes during the preflight process (completing it). Naturally, this has led to flight crews expeditiously completing the FRAT without thought, otherwise known as "pencil whipping." I (Jason) would argue that those FRATs were not constructed to meaningfully reflect the true nature of the hazards faced by the organization and were more than likely built (or copied) from some standard FRAT template. While FAA’s InFO 07015 is a great example of a preflight risk assessment, it is just that: an example. Within the body of this InFO, the FAA even states "They (organizations) should then decide whether to use the tool as published or to modify it as needed for their own operations."

Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) operators and pilots are very aware of the hazards faced in each mission. Some hazards are enumerated in the proposed rule (e.g., flat light, unimproved landing sites, power lines, terrain, etc.), and some will be unique to the operator. It is then incumbent upon the organization to determine which hazards it is exposed to and, from those, which create the greatest risk. These should be the hazards of consideration in the preflight risk assessment. For example, a popular Flight Risk Assessment Tool hazard is "Captain with less than 200 hours in type." If your organization has a policy to not hire or utilize any pilots with less than 200 hours in type, then obviously there would be no exposure, and this would not need to be considered as part of the preflight assessment.

The importance here is to construct a preflight assessment that is truly representative of the most impacting hazards your organization is exposed to. Furthermore, make it concise. HEMS operations are time-critical, so, to be meaningful, the preflight assessment should not be an undue burden. Finally, work with your Flight Standards District Office (FSDO) to ultimately construct a preflight risk assessment that will help bring operational risk under control at your organization.

6. Compliance tips

Best practice, in terms of compliance, is to carefully review the final FAA rules. It is also important to look closely at the actual wording of the regulations to determine how your operation can best comply with new requirements. The key is to plan ahead and consider improvements to your current risk assessment procedures, as well as the implementation and impact of an OCC, or equivalent requirement, within your flight operation.

7. Future regulatory adjustments

It is hoped, at some point, that there will be improvements to the style of FAA oversight. Local interpretations can and do occur. In practice, each FSDO’s certificate management team has occasionally implemented regulatory changes inconsistently. In some cases, certificate holders may feel they must comply with something that is not in the regulations. This has led to operator confusion in some cases.

8. More information is available

For additional background and information on upcoming rule changes for the helicopter operator community, see the Federal Register.

Conclusion

No helicopter operators will be exempt from these rule changes. While compliance with the new rules will have a minimal impact on Part 91 helicopter operations, there will certainly be a more dramatic impact on larger air ambulance certificate holders. The new rules will have major implications on air ambulance work. For example, you will now have to do a flight risk assessment contained within a Safety Management System (SMS) before each flight, and this procedure will take additional time to complete.

Questions?

If you have questions about this article, contact us at jkirk@emsairservices.com or christinevamvakas@univ-wea.com. If you have other general questions about SMSs and business aviation, contact christinevamvakas@univ-wea.com.

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About

A former corporate pilot and United States Air Force veteran, Captain Jason Starke is an expert on aviation safety and operations. He served as Safety Management and Integration (SM&I) Operations Manager for Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc. until 2014.

At the time of his leaving, Jason had more than 21 total years of aviation experience. Prior to joining Universal®, he had led his previous employer’s SMS and emergency response plan implementation. While at Universal, he became a member of the NBAA Safety Committee and presented on safety management at various industry events. He holds a bachelor’s of science degree in meteorology and a master’s degree in aviation, with specializations in safety and operations.

About

John Kirk is a helicopter pilot and the current safety director for EMS Air Services of New York, Inc. With over 45 years of experience in aviation, he is currently qualified on the EC 135 and BK 117 helicopters. His employer operates in support of its client, Mercy Flight Central. Born in the USA of an American father and British mother and educated in Great Britain, John served in the Royal Air Force (RAF), operating in many parts of the world. His RAF qualifications included safety officer, tactics and trials, search and rescue, and mission planning. He subsequently worked for four years supporting the oil exploration industry in the North Sea. He is currently a senior at Liberty University working on his bachelor’s degree in aeronautics. John Kirk is leading the team implementing SMS jointly with Mercy Flight Central. John can be reached at jkirk@emsairservices.com.

This guest author’s views are entirely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Universal Weather and Aviation, Inc.

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