Since European aviation safety regulations on helicopter HEMS were published in 2012, there has only been a single major regulatory revision to how EU Member States should conduct HEM. In 2018, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) published a notice of proposed amendment (NPA) to HEMS regulations aiming to improve the safety of HEMS by broadening the HEMS definition to include urgent but non-medical rescue operations other than SAR, and by addressing the main risks of HEMS accidents.
This amendment, NPA 2018-04, specifically proposes HEMS rules to the mountain environment, to introduce non-medical rescue as part of the definition of HEMS, introduce safety mitigations for operations in a degraded visual environment, and update rules on public interest sites, affirms Eric Bennett, Air Operations Regulations Officer at EASA.
New flexible HEMS provisions outlined in EASA regulations
NPA 2018-04’s proposal to adapt HEMS rules to the mountain environment includes the introduction of oxygen rules and performance regulations for HEMS operations at high altitudes, where performance class 2 criteria cannot be met. “The NPA provides for new flexibility regarding the position of the HEMS crew member during the flight if the hoist is used and for the introduction of the use of the cargo sling for HEMS missions,” said Bennett.
The proposal to introduce non-medical rescue as part of the definition of HEMS relates to urgent missions to extract persons from a life-threatening environment or provide necessary supplies under the same rules as HEMS. “Mountain rescues are to take place under HEMS rules. Subpart HEMS will provide a benchmark regulation for mountain rescues. SAR is to remain defined by Member States,” according to Bennett. “If the national definition of SAR and other State or similar services includes mountain rescues, such activities will remain outside of the scope of the European aviation safety regulations until the Member State opts in. In all other cases, the new HEMS regulations will apply to mountain rescues and urgent rescue operations other than SAR, providing the necessary variations to commercial air transport (CAT) regulations and mitigating the risks associated with emergency flights.”
The introduction of safety mitigations for operations in a degraded visual environment is particularly connected with the use night vision imaging systems (NVIS). “NVIS is to become mandatory for night HEMS except in cases of flights within a well illuminated urban area and flights to pre-surveyed sites. Helicopters are to become NVIS compatible and pilots to be equipped with night vision goggles (NVG), whose operation will be based on operator specific standard operating procedures (SOP),” said Bennett.
Other safety mitigations for operations in conditions of reduced visibility include the simplification of HEMS visual flight rules (VFR) minima and adaptation to crew capabilities, and greater requirements on pilot and HEMS technical crew member training. “Pilot recency in instrument meteorological conditions is to be replaced by a more thorough training to competency. There will be increased focus on crew coordination for both pilot and technical crews, the latter will also be fully trained on the tasks delegated to them,” said Bennett. “Stabilization systems or autopilots are to be required at night unless the HEMS crew is composed of two pilots. The NPA provides for the introduction of instrument flight rules (IFR) enablers including lower minima on a short VFR segment of an IFR flight in association with a point in space approach and departure at or near the destination. The introduction of a moving map system with obstacle and terrain database for situational awareness is also foreseen.”
The requirements to implement NVIS at night, and to have either an autopilot or stabilization system – or a crew of two pilots at night – will come at a cost for operators which are not already implementing these measures, according to Bennett: “Improved training will also come at a cost for those operators not already implementing it. However, the proposal increases the safety of HEMS operations by addressing the source of a majority of HEMS accidents, i.e. loss of control or controlled flight into terrain associated with a degraded visual environment, and obstacle collision on approach to an un-surveyed site in an emergency.”
The proposal to update rules on public interest sites aims to avoid the worsening of the obstacle environments. Bennett continued: “It also introduces clarity to ensure that performance alleviations remain accessible only at legacy hospital sites and cannot be used at newly built hospitals. With the current rules as well as with the NPA there is the risk that a given hospital may no longer served by HEMS helicopters. This may happen if performance requirements cannot be met at a hospital, and the current or amended criteria to obtain a performance alleviation are also not met. This risk has been minimized and the impact is therefore very limited.”
NPA 2018-04 has naturally garnered attention from the industry, according to a statement from Peter Moeller, Chairman of the European Helicopter Association (EHA) and Andreas Hjert, Deputy Head of Training at Norsk Luftambulanse, an EHA member: “EASA received a fairly large number of comments ranging from positive and negative and some polarized, as could be expected. Many comments are duplicated, which was also expected, and many comments indicate misunderstanding or misinterpretation. In general, the industry has received the NPA quite well, but there are some areas that may present challenges. It is important to identify and handle all the proposed changes that may be problematic for the industry for one or several reasons.”
Following industry comments, the HEMS rulemaking activity was de-prioritized for two years for a regulatory cooldown period, observes Bennett. “The comments received offer an opportunity to re-open passionate discussions that were led during the drafting of the NPA and refine and update the decisions that were made at the time. The comments received also reveal the diversity of HEMS operations across Europe, especially in terms of the current training and checking of the HEMS technical crew member, NVIS capability and equipment level of HEMS helicopters, views on helicopter performance, and national definitions of SAR and State and similar services that are subject to national rules,” he said. “The comments to NPA 2018-04 are currently being processed by EASA with the help of experts from operators, authorities, manufacturers and a pilot union.”
Moeller and Hjert stated that EHA and other experts from the HEMS industry to the EASA groups are reviewing the comments. “The focus of these group is to update the NPA and amend it as necessary based on the comments received and the input received from the all-weather operations (AWO) rulemaking task. Other relevant changes in the operational context since 2018, including any related exemption or alternative means of compliance (AltMoC) received since the NPA was published need to be considered as well. The objective of the groups is to deliver an amended regulation, acceptable means of compliance, guidance material, and explanatory notes to the proposed amendments,” according to Moeller and Hjert.
The Opinion related to NPA 2018-04 is likely to be submitted to the EU Commission by Q3 2022. “If voted by the EU Member States, the amended regulation should enter into force by the end of 2023,” said Bennett.
The human cargo
One of the new concepts under NPA 2018-04 is HEMS human external cargo (HEC). “HEMS HEC is a HEMS operation that carries one or more persons externally from the helicopter. HEMS HEC operations may be conducted with the hoist or with the cargo sling,” said Bennett.
A technical crew member assigned and trained by the operator to support the pilot during HEMS HEC missions complements the crew. According to NPA 2018-04, the approval to conduct HEMS HEC will be included in the HEMS approval, affirm Moeller and Hjert.
HEMS HEC operations with the hoist are currently being conducted under CAT, HEMS, and helicopter hoist operations (HHO) regulations. “The proposal introduces more flexibility with regard to the seating of the HEMS technical crew member, when the hoist is likely to be used and the HEMS technical crew member is also a hoist operator,” said Bennett.
A number of member states already allow missions that require the use of the cargo hook under a HEMS approval, observe Moeller and Hjert: “They have provided AltMoCs to their operators by setting a number of conditions for such operations by referring to SPO.SPEC.HEC. This concept is considered valid and shall be included in HEMS according to NPA 2018-04. It should also be observed that HEC is also already performed by HEMS operators under SAR regulations/national approvals.”
The NPA proposes to include the industry best practice in the HEMS regulations regarding HEMS HEC, according to Bennett. “The relevant rules applicable to specialised operations (SPO) with tasks specialists carried externally will be referred to or will otherwise become applicable. The operation remains a CAT and HEMS operation. It does not become SPO. It is not planned to require a SPO declaration or a high risk commercial SPO authorisation,” he stated.
IFR and VFR in HEMS
NPA 2018-04 facilitates IFR operations in HEMS in several ways, and specifically the selection of destination alternate aerodromes and operating minima when proceeding VFR prior to an instrument departure or after an instrument approach. “The intention is to facilitate a safer IFR option to VFR flying in marginal conditions,” said Moeller and Hjert.
EASA expects that HEMS missions will be at least partially flown under VFR for the foreseeable future. “An approach to an un-surveyed accident site can hardly make use of an obstacle-protected instrument approach meeting procedure design requirements. The NPA does not require IFR per se. The proposals, in combination with the ‘fuel’ and ‘AWO’ opinions, proposes to amend the rules to make IFR a viable option for operators and pilots, for at least part of the HEMS mission,” said Bennett. “A viable IFR option should reduce the risks of accidents in marginal VFR conditions, for those who implement it.”
The aim of the ‘fuel’ opinion (Opinion 02-2020), of the ‘AWO’ opinion (Opinion 02-2021), as well as elements of NPA 2018-04, is to improve the operating rules to enable operators to make best use of the growing helicopter IFR route network. To achieve this, the proposals are to enable IFR at fuel planning stage by reducing the number of alternates needed and at the fuel planning stage by increasing the number of available alternates, according to Bennett.
It is with the ‘fuel’ opinion that EASA intends to enable IFR at fuel planning stage by reducing the number of alternates needed. “In case of helicopter IFR to a non-runway destination, credit is given to controlled weather information at a non-aerodrome destination, the weather information does not need to be certified in accordance with part-MET requirements. There is one alternate needed instead of two,” according to Bennett. “In case of helicopter IFR to a runway, no alternate is needed if there are weather margins and two independent approaches.”
It is with both the ‘fuel’ and ‘AWO’ opinions that EASA aims to enable IFR at fuel planning stage by increasing the number of available alternates.
“The opinions contemplate alternates with no instrument approach procedures, e.g., high pressure winter conditions or mountain flight, reliance on GNSS at both destination and alternate if conditions are met, and reduced minima and planning minima to runways with cat I instrument landing system (ILS) or cat II landing systems if conditions are met,” said Bennett. “The opinions also enable IFR approaches to non-aerodromes by removing the approach ban if no certified weather information is transmitted to the pilot. Along these lines, NPA 2018-04 enables the continuation of the IFR flight to destination after the ‘missed approach point’ by ensuring that IFR minima remain equal to or lower than HEMS VFR minima.”