FAA proposes new safety rules for emergency medical helicopter industry

By Mary Pat Flaherty and Jenna Johnson
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, October 7, 2010; 6:57 PM

The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday proposed requiring new onboard safety equipment and training for the $2.5 billion emergency medical helicopter industry but stopped short of endorsing a broader set of recommendations advocated for several years by the National Transportation Safety Board.

The FAA plan would require terrain warning systems, operation control centers for larger companies, pre-flight risk analysis, particularly for weather, and stricter flight rules whenever medical crew members - not just patients - are onboard.

The FAA did not require the use of night-vision goggles or an autopilot to help relieve pilots' workloads during difficult flights. Both were among the long-standing safety additions advocated by the NTSB, which can make recommendations but must rely on other agencies to fix problems it uncovers during accident investigations.

Nearly 850 medical helicopters operated by 74 air ambulance companies fly in the United States, according to the FAA. Once associated chiefly with hospital-based programs, the industry is now dominated by private firms, some with fleets as large as regional carriers, a Washington Post investigation found last year.

But unlike commercial carriers, medical helicopters have been permitted to fly without safety features such as terrain-warning systems or autopilot. The medical aircraft also fly at lower altitudes that routinely put them outside the guidance of air traffic controllers.

The proposed FAA rules come as the industry is experiencing a spike in helicopter deaths. Sixteen crew members have been killed this year in accidents, an increase that recalls 2008, when a midair collision of medevacs helped drive the death toll to an all-time high of 28 crew members and patients.

The FAA proposal is subject to 90 days of public comment, and officials could take at least a year to write final rules. It could take even longer to adopt and implement them.

The FAA proposal also provides for enhanced procedures for flying in challenging weather, at night and in remote landing areas.

"We can prevent accidents by preparing pilots and equipping helicopters for all of the unique flying conditions they encounter," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, who called the proposal "significant." It is time, he said, "to take steps towards mandating these major safety improvements."

The proposed rules do not cover public operations such as the Maryland State Police helicopter fleet, unless those agencies have agreed to abide by them through an FAA certification process.

A spokeswoman for the Maryland State Police, which suffered a crash that killed three crew members and one teenage patient in 2008, said the department is pursuing its certification and will have added safety equipment when it replaces its aging helicopters. In the meantime, crews voluntarily comply with many of the proposed rules, spokeswoman Elena Russo said.

The NTSB declined to comment on the proposed rules while the board reviewed the FAA announcement, spokesman Keith Holloway said.

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