HELO OPS

Improving safety in EMS and other rotary-wing flight ops

Avionics and training with possible new rules from FAA and NTSB will enhance safety and reduce CFIT.

By David Bjellos
ATP/Helo. Bell 407, Gulfstream IVSP


University of North Dakota Student Ed Eileacher flies the latest Eurocopter AS350B3/FlightSafety Intl program simulator. Flight training devices such as these give pilots a wealth of simulated experience in a brief period of time and help to reduce accidents.

For the past decade, worldwide fixed-wing accident rates have been declining steadily due to advances in training and equipment. Yet the helicopter industry has been suffering continued losses, especially with CFIT and loss of control.

Most such accidents have occurred at night in poor visibility, yet some have been midair collisions in day VMC with highly experienced aviators. FAA has established an initiative for 2009 called Aviation Safety Business Plan, which recommends hardware upgrades and aviator training tools to reduce the high number of fatalities. (See sidebars on this page and p 97.)

A 2-pronged approach by FAA to reduce the accident rate will be accomplished this year, primarily through crew training and awareness and the implementation of cockpit upgrades.

This commentary seeks to quantify these 2 distinctive approaches. Part 1: Human factors-basic and advanced airmanship

Accident reduction programs

In virtually every instance, rotorcraft accidents have 1 or 2 distinct contributing factors in common-lack of formal risk-evaluation procedures for flightcrews, and lack of situational awareness (SA) equipment, such as TAWS and/or TCAS I/II.

From a regulatory standpoint, each can be addressed and acted on through legislation. FAA's recommendation for implementation of the safety management system (SMS) concept was based on the success of lessons learned from the Commercial Airline Safety Team (CAST).

An outgrowth of Boeing's Accident Prevention Strategy (APS) begun in the 1990s, CAST resulted in significantly fewer accidents. Using established CAST protocols, the International Helicopter Safety Team (IHST) was formed with the express goal of reducing rotorcraft accidents by 80% by 2015.

FAA Aviation Safety 2009 Business Plan
FAA is making aggressive efforts to reduce the fatal accident rate for rotorcraft operators. Included in the agency's roadmap are SMS, reduced GA accident rates and a reduction in operational errors. FAA proposes specific RNP/RNAV helicopter arrival and departure routings and proposes that all segments of HEMS flights be conducted under Part 135. For IFR-equipped aircraft, this means WAAS-enabled avionics plus eventual RNP certification. In addition, FAA has identified Part 91 and 135 NVG rulemaking and guidance as key to reducing the number of fatal crashes.

Hazard mapping and minimum altitudes

Recently, FAA published a flight operations handbook for electronic news gathering (ENG) operators. Known as FAA H 8083-12 and available via the agency's website, it is of use to all operators, not just news organizations.

Flight visibilities in Class E or G Airspace can be as low as 1 mile, clear of clouds. This is legal, but is it safe? The concept of hazard mapping-familiarity along route of flight with regard to obstacles, potential landing sites and terrain-remains a strong recommendation.

While professional rotorcraft aviators are accustomed to a thorough preflight, including careful route planning, the concept bears review and considerable attention, especially at times of reduced visibility.

Investigators inspect tour helicopter crash site at Hanea, Kauai HI on Mar 11, 2007. Increased regulation of tour operators has led to reduced fatalities.

FAA recommends that even seasoned operators conduct hazard mapping on a more frequent basis, especially with less than ideal conditions. The handbook provides compelling data for all experience levels.

Minimum altitudes are almost a misnomer for rotorcraft since they operate near the surface by necessity. Again, FAA recommends a review of specific operations that goes beyond the height/velocity charts.

Is the terrain below you relatively flat with numerous landing sites in the event of a forced landing? Will 500 ft provide sufficient time to recognize a problem and make a landing pointed generally into the wind?These questions apply equally to single-engine aircraft and large, Category A rotorcraft. Often, 1000 ft agl or higher is indicated, given specific circumstances.

Finally, flight and duty time limitations play a major role, especially with Part 91 single-pilot aircraft. In the absence of formal requirements, long days and nights can have a cumulative effect on physiological performance and reaction times, as does the added stress of completing the mission.

FAA recommends establishing duty time and rest requirements based on 14 CFR Part 135. Numerous service providers can help with the establishment or fine-tuning of an operator's current Part 91 rules as established in its flight ops manual (FOM) and standard operating procedures (SOPs).

High and low reconnaissance of the LZ

Perhaps no single useful piece of information for aviators matches the importance of a thorough review of the intended landing zone (LZ) than the high and low recon.

Many accidents have occurred where the pilot was making multiple stops to the same location (eg, firefighting using a Bambi bucket), making repetitive helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) trips to the same accident site, or logging.

Wind directions change as daytime temperatures climb or fall, requiring different arrival and departure vectors. Keeping a close eye on environmental factors that contribute to wind shifts, especially in firefighting, is crucial.

And while many flight operations fly strictly VFR, the industry has had significant problems with inadvertent flight into IMC, often with fatal consequences. Solid preflight planning, along with a call to the local FSS, will help establish the go/no-go decision during the preflight phase.

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