Citing serious safety issues arising out of an incident at National Airport, the National Transportation Safety Board recommended yesterday that a standard system be established to govern helicopter arrival and departure routes at all major U.S. airports.
The recommendation came after an investigation into a near collision between a helicopter and an Eastern Air Lines shuttle at National Airport last Sept. 24.
The incident occurred when the Eastern Boeing 727 bound for New York was forced to abort its takeoff to avoid hitting a Bell 206 helicopter that was directed to the same spot by a controller at National. The jetliner came to a halt only 40 yards from the Potomac River.
The recommendation released by the safety board yesterday said that the Federal Aviation Administration should create standard departure and arrival routes for helicopter traffic at National, as well as at other airports around the nation.
"Although this letter addresses the Washington National incident in particular, the Safety Board believes that the problems involved have implications on a national scale," the recommendation said.
The FAA has 90 days in which to respond to the report.
Helicopter operators long have urged modifying the air traffic control system.
"The helicopter has been put into an air traffic control system that has been designed completely for fixed wing aircraft," said John Zugschwert, executive director of the American Helicopter Society, a group that represents designers and manufacturers. "We are very pleased by this recommendation."
FAA spokesman Robert Buckhorn said the agency would wait until officials had read the report to make any specific comments.
"We are in the process of implementing changes [at National] and others are planned," he said. "We have done a number of things since the incident to correct the situation that existed at the time."
Safety board officials said that the lack of specific air traffic guidelines, such as those that exist for the pilots of planes, governing takeoff and landing procedures for helicopters at National Airport contributed to the confusion that caused the September incident.
The board also recommended that the FAA design new charts to be used by helicopter pilots throughout the Washington metropolitan area.
While the board found that National's tower was fully staffed with qualified personnel at the time of the incident, it raised concerns about the controller training program at the airport.
The recommendation asks the FAA to "require that on-the-job training at specified control positions be given only by controllers who are qualified instructors and who have current performance evaluations."
By "current," the National Transportation Safety Board means within the last six months. The helicopter controller who the FAA said made the mistake was giving on-the-job training to another person less than an hour before the near collision, but had not received an evaluation in more than 19 months.
"It is just vitally important that we establish unique routing for helicopter traffic, said one safety board official. "It's important for the controllers, and it's important for the people who fly."
There are about 20,000 helicopters in use in the United States, half of which are civilian aircraft, according to the American Helicopter Society.