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After reviewing the new FAA rules unveiled this past February, I can’t help thinking the agency missed a golden opportunity to include a rule that would have significantly reduced the appalling accident rate seen over the past 35 years in our helicopter air ambulance industry.  In the FAA’s final report, by their own admission after reviewing past accidents, half of those accidents could have possibly been prevented had a second pilot been present, or at least an autopilot installed.  But the mention of an autopilot is conspicuously absent anywhere in the new rules. To be fair, the FAA does advocate the use of autopilots for every HEMS aircraft, but the agency is hobbled to do anything about it because of its seemingly schizophrenic mandate.  Let me explain.

The FAA’s new rulemaking originated from an emergency four-day public hearing called by the NTSB and professionals in the HEMS industry in 2009, after 2008 became the most devastating year, accident-wise, in the history of helicopter air ambulance.  The findings from that four-day hearing were summarized in a 19-page document written by the then head of the FAA, Randy Babbitt.  In that document Babbitt wrote:

“A review of the NTSB Aviation Accident Database revealed that during the eight-year period from 2000–2008, 123 HEMS accidents occurred, killing 104 people and seriously injuring 42 more. Pilot actions or omissions, in some capacity, were attributed as the probable cause in 60 of the 123 accidents. Most of these 60 accidents might have been prevented had a second pilot and/or an autopilot been present.” 

From testimony given at that four-day public hearing, proposed rules were drafted and then distributed for comment from those in the industry that would be affected.  Reviewing the comments received, Babbitt’s report noted that the recommendation by the FAA to install an autopilot in every HEMS aircraft was overwhelmingly struck down by the stakeholders, their argument being that by doing so the expense could force some smaller operators out of business. 

When I read that my feeling was: How can you put a dollar value on a human life?  If you cannot afford to get into the game by making your helicopter as safe as it can be, then the FAA shouldn’t allow you to get into the game. 

If the FAA and NTSB concluded in that 19-page report that lives will be saved by installing an autopilot, then why wouldn’t the FAA draft a rule to make it mandatory?  The answer to that question highlights the FAA’s mandate that it must consider the effect on business, which in this case won out over potential lives saved.

Under the new rule, all air ambulance operators are required to:
1. Install Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS).
2. Equip with flight data monitoring systems within four years.
3. Establish operations control centers if they are certificate holders with 10 or
    more helicopter air ambulances.
4. Institute pre-flight risk-analysis programs.
5. Ensure their pilots in command hold an instrument rating.
6. Ensure pilots identify and document the highest obstacle along the planned
     route, before departure.
7. Comply with Visual Flight Rules (VFR) weather minimums, Instrument Flight
      Rules (IFR) operations at airports/heliports without weather reporting,
      procedures for VFR approaches, and VFR flight planning.
8. Conduct the flight using Part 135 weather requirements and flight crew time
       limitation and rest requirements when medical personnel are on board.
9. Conduct safety briefings or training for medical personnel.

The FAA defended the new rules by noting in their final report that after examining helicopter air ambulance accidents from 1991 through 2010, that the 62 accidents that claimed 125 lives could have been mitigated by the new rules.
I’m thinking, if the FAA also said in that same report that having an autopilot could have prevented half the crashes, why wasn’t installing one also mandated in the new rules?

There is a reason for their obvious omission and I was shocked when I learned what that reason was.  The FAA’s position was succinctly explained in an April 2012 article in the Aviation Law Monitor: 

“When the FAA was created, it was charged with both regulating aviation and promoting it. The FAA’s inherent conflict of interest explains why the FAA so often ignores the NTSB’s aviation safety recommendations.”

That sounds like a system that’s broken to me.  I mean, how can a government agency entrusted with the public’s trust, apparently violate that trust by not enacting rules that, by their own admission, would save lives? Where is the morality in basing safety decisions on the bottom line?  I’m sure the 374 people who died in HEMS helicopter crashes and their loved ones would ask the same question.

While the industry waited the five years for the new rules to be unveiled by the FAA, HEMS helicopters continued to crash at an alarming rate.  To further strengthen the two-pilot/autopilot argument, on May 4th 2011, NTSB board member Robert L. Sumwalt, delivered a presentation aimed at hospitals that employ companies to supply them with helicopters and flight crews.  In that presentation Sumwalt pointed out that there are varying levels of safety in the helicopters and the flight crews supplied to them.  He argued that for ultimate safety, hospitals should consider operating helicopters using two pilots, or at a very minimum have an autopilot installed to help out a single pilot.

I predict that the new rules aimed at our air ambulance industry will not significantly reduce the accident rate.  Unless operators take it upon themselves to install autopilots in every HEMS aircraft before being forced to do so by the FAA, a day will eventually come when a rule will mandate that all HEMS helicopters not operated by two pilots must be fitted with an autopilot.  Doing it now will save lives.  Until that day comes, it is anyone’s guess how many lives will be lost in what has been termed by the news media as the most dangerous profession in America.

 

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