In 2009, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) published a Most Wanted List issuing 19 safety recommendations for what was then referred to as Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS). This publication came after the deadliest year on record in the HEMS industry; in 2008 29 crew members perished in helicopter air ambulance crashes. In 2011, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA) issued a Notice of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) to address safety concerns, many of which were addressed in the NTSB Recommendations. Following industry input, many changes were made amending regulations, equipment requirements, pilot training, weather minimums and flight risk evaluation programs. HEMS operations were now going to be called HAA (Helicopter Air Ambulance). The changes that were adopted were implemented over time to allow operators the opportunity to train and configure their fleet.
The importance of weather reporting
One such regulation was 135.611, which allows those authorised to conduct helicopter instrument flight rules (IFR) operations to fly to an airport that does not have approved weather conditions. Now of course, to do something like this comes with additional requirements: an approved weather report within 15 nautical miles must be checked and have met filing requirements. Or, failing that, the pilot must obtain weather reports and forecasts from an approved US National Weather Service (NWS) source, or a source approved by the FAA regarding the weather in that vicinity. In the past, this would allow the pilot to use the Area Forecast (FA) to file IFR to an airport without weather reporting, but the Aviation Area Forecast has since been discontinued. In its place is the new Graphical Forecasts for Aviation (GFA) Tool, which comes with a new interface that allows the creation of a visual map of weather projected at a selected future timeframe.
A second requirement of the regulation was the selection of an alternate airport, which is of course a great safety practice, but can be limiting with IFR helicopter operations due to the typically limited fuel range compared to that of their fixed-winged colleagues
A solid back-up plan
A second requirement of the regulation was the selection of an alternate airport, which is of course a great safety practice, but can be limiting with IFR helicopter operations due to the typically limited fuel range compared to that of their fixed-winged colleagues. In some cases, having an alternate airport might not be necessary: if the original destination had an approved weather reporting system and the weather for an hour before to an hour after the Estimated Time of Arrival (ETA) was forecast to be at least 1,500 feet above the lowest circling Minimum Descent Altitude (MDA), or if a circling approach is not authorised, the ceiling will be at least 1,500 feet above the lowest published minimum or 2,000 feet above the airport elevation (whichever is higher); and the visibility for that airport is forecast to be at least two or three miles more than the lowest applicable visibility minimums (whichever is greater for the Instrument Approach Procedure (IAP) to be used). In such cases, the fuel requirements would have been less restrictive, but to afford this helicopter-specific allowance, one must file for an alternate airport and meet the minimum fuel requirements of Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) Part 135.223(a)(3).
The right tools for the job
Most visual flight rules (VFR) HAA aircraft do not have this severe weather detection equipment and many IFR aircraft also do not
Subpart (d) of regulation 135.611 stated: “Each helicopter air ambulance operated under this section must be equipped with functioning severe weather detection equipment.” Many HAA operators had, in the past (prior to the FAR 135.00 additions), been able to fly to airports without weather reporting under A021 in their respective Operations Specification, but with this change, the requirement of severe weather detection equipment had been added. The term ‘severe weather detection equipment’ was defined as ‘onboard weather radar or spherics devices such as a Stormscope’.
Most visual flight rules (VFR) HAA aircraft do not have this severe weather detection equipment and many IFR aircraft also do not. The general consensus was that this requirement posed an added economic burden on IFR operators and might possibly have the exact opposite impact on safety than was intended, i.e. pilots without this equipment would not be able to fly IFR to those airports. So, instead this might encourage them to push on in marginal VFR weather (MVFR) – a practice that has historically had deadly consequences.
As such, eventually an agreement was reached whereby the operator in question was able to obtain an exemption to this rule. Those operating under the exemption would only be permitted to fly if there was no expectation for thunderstorms during all phases of the flight (Departure, Destination, Alternate, Return to Base). Additional and thoroughly comprehensive pre-flight weather planning was also required: aircraft operating under this exemption would have to be continuously monitored by the operator’s Operations Control Centers, and additional training would be required annually for both the pilots and the flight specialists overseeing the operations conducted under this part.
As of 26 August 2019, operators will no longer be required to file for or renew a request for this exemption
As of 26 August 2019, operators will no longer be required to file for or renew a request for this exemption. FAR 135.611 now reads: “(b) Each helicopter air ambulance operated under this section must be equipped with functioning severe weather detection equipment, unless the pilot in command reasonably determines severe weather will not be encountered at the destination, the alternate destination, or along the route of flight.”
This is a great example of the FAA listening to HAA operators, determining that making this change will not have an adverse effect on safety and putting the updated regulation in place. This change will benefit operators who invest in operating an instrument helicopter platform and further invest in the additional training and currency required to be available to a greater extent to both trauma and medical patients without being required to invest in expensive additional equipment. It will also task the pilot with some additional planning requirements to ensure safe operations. In my opinion, this is a good move, and a sign of a greater partnership between the FAA and air medical operators in the US.