Helicopter Safety: Part 1 – New Regulations to Mitigate Risk

PT 5 M minute read
Helicopter Safety: Part 1 – New Regulations to Mitigate Risk

This is a post co-written by guest author John Kirk – safety director for EMS Air Services of New York, Inc. – and Jason Starke – Safety Management and Integration (SM&I) operations manager, Universal Weather and Aviation, 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 is part of a series on helicopter safety.

New Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) helicopter safety rules go into effect April 22, 2014. There will likely be a certain amount of confusion within the rotor wing marketplace when these new rules become active. Many of these new regulations have already been complied with, either voluntarily or because of persuasion from the FAA, by way of operating to Part 135 standards. However, in some cases, operators have historically made use of lesser regulations and safety standards (i.e., no weather limits and no crew duty rest limits) afforded to Part 91 operators, and accidents have occurred which may have been avoided had stricter standards been embraced.

The following is an overview of what you need to know:

1. Understanding the problem

Helicopter air ambulance accidents reached historic levels during the years 2003 through 2008, with 2008 being the deadliest year. In 2008, five air ambulance accidents killed 21 people, including pilots, patients, and medical personnel. A new rule addresses the causes of the 62 helicopter air ambulance accidents that occurred during the years 1991 through 2010. One hundred twenty-five people lost their lives in those accidents. The FAA identified four common contributing factors in those accidents: inadvertent flight into Instrument Meteorological Conditions (IMC), loss of control, controlled flight into terrain (including mountains, ground, water, and man-made obstacles), and night conditions.

2. New regulations for helicopter operations

On February 21, 2014, the Department of Transport published its final rules in the Federal Register relating to commercial helicopter, air ambulance, and Part 91 private helicopter operations. These changes address helicopter, air ambulance, commercial helicopter, and General Aviation (GA) helicopter operations. To respond to an increase in fatal air ambulance helicopter accidents, the FAA is implementing new helicopter air ambulance operational procedures and additional equipment requirements. The new rules are intended to increase safety for commercial helicopter operations by revising requirements for equipment, pilot testing, and alternate airports. Meanwhile, it increases weather minima for all GA helicopter operations. Many of these requirements take into account National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) safety recommendations, which are already found in the FAA guidance. The intention is to provide certificate holders and pilots with additional and effective tools/procedures to aid in preventing accidents.

3. Rules go into effect April 22, 2014

While these new rules become effective in April, affected parties do not have to comply with certain information-collecting requirements until the Office of Management and Budget approves the data collection and assigns a control number under the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1995.

4. FAA’s solution for commercial helicopter operations

This rule addresses the causes of 20 commercial helicopter accidents that occurred from 1991 through 2010. Thirty-nine people died in those accidents. Also from 1991 to 2010, there were 49 accidents that occurred while the helicopter was operating under basic visual flight rule weather minima and caused 63 fatalities. The FAA has determined that those accidents may have beenprevented if pilots and helicopters had been better equipped for IMC, flat-light, whiteout, and brownout conditions, as well as for flights over water. In addition to addressing causal factors of these accidents, this rule also addresses NTSB safety recommendations, as well as recommendations made by the Part 125/135 Aviation Rulemaking Committee. The FAA has taken actions to address the problem of helicopter accidents, such as enveloping standards and issuing guidances which were discussed in the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) published October 12, 2010. In addition to the actions noted there, the FAA has revised its guidance materials to align with the provisions of this new rule.

5. Greatest impact will be on commercial helicopter operations

Provisions of this rule are directed primarily toward helicopter air ambulance operations and commercial operations conducted under Part 135. This rule also establishes new weather minima for helicopters operating under Part 91 in Class G airspace. For helicopter air ambulances, this rule requires operations with medical personnel onboard to be conducted under Part 135 operating rules and introduces new weather minima/visibility requirements for Part 135 operations. It mandates flight planning, preflight risk analysis, safety briefings for medical personnel, and establishment of Operations Control Centers (OCCs) for air ambulance operators with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances. OCC personnel will be required to undergo ongoing drug and alcohol testing. The rules also include provisions to encourage instrument flight rules operations. They require helicopter air ambulances both to be equipped with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS) and to warn pilots about obstacles in their flight path, as well as flight data monitoring systems. All helicopter air ambulance pilots will be required to hold instrument ratings. For helicopters operating under Part 135, these rules require operators to carry additional survival equipment for operations over water. Alternate airports named in flight plans must have higher weather minima than currently required. These helicopters must be equipped with radio altimeters, and pilots must be able to demonstrate that they can maneuver the aircraft during an inadvertent encounter with IMC to get out of those conditions safely. Additionally, this rule contains a provision affecting Part 91 helicopter operations and assigns new weather minima to Part 91 helicopter operations in Class G airspace.

6. A hint of Safety Management

It is well known that the FAA’s NPRM on Safety Management Systems (SMS), which will create Part 5, does not initially address Part 135 or Part 91 operators. The creation of regulations that extend beyond the operating environment, or establishment of organizational positions to support the operations responsibly, into the way the organization manages safety through internal processes is somewhat of a new concept for flight operations governance. These performance-based organizational requirements will first be prescribed to Part 121 operators, with other segments to follow somewhere in the future. However, there is a hint of Safety Management woven into these new helicopter regulations. The notion of a preflight risk assessment is very SMS-esque. While the hazards faced during Helicopter Emergency Medical Services, or any helicopter mission, for that matter, are more likely already known by the pilot, the preflight risk assessment function allows the organization to better take part in tactical risk mitigation through a formal, documented, and repeatable process. In the end, the organization will be afforded the chance to proactively assess and actively mitigate missions to bring risk under control.

7. Details are available online

Full details of these new rules, and rule applications, are available in a 49-page Federal Register PDF document. Table 1 in this publication shows how existing rules are changing for those affected by the new rules. Table 2 shows costs and benefits of the rule by affected population, while Table 3 shows the cost of the rule-by-rule provision.


For the helicopter air ambulance industry, this rule requires operations with medical personnel onboard to be conducted under Part 135 operating rules while introducing new weather minima and visibility requirements for all Part 135 operations. The need to improve situational awareness is addressed with the requirement for HTAWS and radar altimeters.


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

Stay tuned for Part 2, which covers helicopter compliance considerations.

Got a question for Jason about this article?