The FAA wows us with their rediculous HEMS fix

Now going into year two of the HEMS rules

Effective the 23rd of April, 2016, the next stage of the new rules become effective. We just had another HEMS accident that resulted in the deaths of four people. Not one single part of the new rules will correct the issues which lead to this accident. As shown below, the FAA had choices that could have made improvments, but they didn't put those items in place because that wasn't where they were getting greased. All pilots and crew should document everything very well, and make their families aware that they should sue all parties whom were negligent in the case of an accident. No family should sell themselves short and settle quickly when there is such gross negligence as the FAA has demonstrated in the HEMS industry.

It was anticipated for a quite awhile, and finally in April of 2014, the new rules went into effect. Not to anyones surprise though, the FAA left their pants down. They were not ready for what they had enacted and it was stayed for another year; imagine that. Finally, in April of 2015, the new rules went into effect in part. The new rules were driven by two major factors. First, the failure of operators to police themselves, and secondly by the high exposure rate of accidents due to publicity. It's big news when a helicopter crashes, bigger still if it was medical.

Some would have you believe that the accident rate was the driving factor, but that is the typical smoke and mirrors. Think about it; if the high rate of fatalities was really the cause, wouldn't a caring government do something about the 480,000 annual deaths caused by smoking? Sure they would, but our government cares about greasing politicians; the FAA is no different, they like their grease to.

Here's what the FAA could have done and DID NOT:

  • Night Vision Goggles seriously enhance the safety of night operations because the pilots can really see with them. It is kind of like turning on the sun at night except it's green. The FAA does not require HEMS operators to utilize these devices. In fact, the FAA actually authorizes operators to forbid the pilots to use them, even when they have them, under certain conditions when they would really benefit the pilot. To make matters even worse, the FAA, with its overblown ego, actually forbids the use of them under some ridiculous conditions.
  • Autopilots with Stability Augmentation (aka SAS) seriously enhances safety, but the FAA does not require HEMS operators to utilize these systems. This is probably the single most important change that could have made the HEMS environment safer.
  • Higher weather minimums seriously enhance safety, but the FAA continues to permit VFR HEMS operators to conduct their flights in marginal weather. IFR pilots actually operate with safer weather margins than VFR pilots do.
  • Pilots with more experience enhance safety, but the FAA permits HEMS operators to hire pilots with minimal experience. To make matters worse, operators are willing to employ poorly skilled pilots simply to fill open slots, and the FAA turns a blind eye.
  • They could have made requirements for hospital heli-pads; there are NONE. Hospitals typically put heli-pads in as an afterthought though knowing that they will land helicopters. It is typical for hospitals to plant trees around heli-pads, put walkways across them, and some hospitals have no heli-pads at all If there is no heli-pad, helicopters land in the streets in front of the hospital amongst wires and trees. What does the FAA do? NOTHING. Yet they are in charge of aviation safety.

Here is what the FAA did after they got greased:

  • All pilots must now complete a Risk Assessment for each leg of every flight. Effective in 2016, before they can accept a flight, an “Operational Controller” must review this RA. The intent is to cause pilots to consider all things that could be a negative factor affecting the safety of the flight. This is an effort to FIX STUPID!! What is worse, is the so called operational controllers don't have to have been pilots, but they are going to be advising pilots though they have very minimal training and absolutely no aviation experience.
  • HEMS helicopers will have to have some kind of HTAWS (helicopter terrain awareness system), this is nice, but what would have really been helpful is TCAS (terrain collision avoidance system), the latter would have made pilots aware of other aircraft in their vacinity since they do operate in large cities where there are not only lots of other HEMS aircraft, but where there are news and police helicopters as well as GA aircraft around the little airports.
  • Operators must have and utilize an "Operational Control Center". This is another attempt to "fix stupid" pilots. This again comes back to operators failing to police themselves; willing to put any dumb ass in the seat because HEMS flights are so lucrative.
  • Radio altimeters are now required and are an excellent tool, a great addition to any cockpit. But to think that they will prevent accidents in these cases is ludicrous. A radio altimeter shows the altitude above terrain where you are currently located; they shoot downward in a conical pattern which in low flying helicopters is essentially straight down. Most, if not all, radio altimeters have a warning bug which can be set at a minimum altitude which is sometimes required by operators per their policies and/or operations manuals. This bug may or may not sound a tone through the aircraft intercom system each time the aircraft descends through the minimum altitude setting which can become annoying. This is a tone of about 1/2 second or so in length, and will not resound unless the aircraft climbs above the minimum setting and descends through it again. I have seen many cases where pilots set the altitude on this device so low that it never works as intended, and that is where they leave it set, "the stupid pilot" the FAA is trying to fix.

The FAR's are a legal document therefore they can be confusing and difficult to understand at times; this is why FAA inspectors themselves will not put anything in writing with regard to FAR's. Though they think their poop don't stink for the most part, they completely lack courage in this department because they know that they don't know.

No one is more critical of the FAA than I am because all to often rather than do what is right, they do whatever it takes to justify their existence. I know of many a pilot who an arrogant FAA inspector dogged often to no avail, but it still put the pilot throught the mill. If it were not for those facts, the FAA was created with good intent but as with all government agencies, when they run out of things to do, they invent them. It is the employees of the agency which have become the poison within. Some of the proposed changes are greatly needed, and are the result of the aviating public NOT policing themselves which has resulted in the need for the FAA to do something, anything, to save face.

The FAA has used the fact that there has been an increase in the number of HEMS accidents as a driving force for the changes, and they are powerfully motivated by pressure from the NTSB and the public. The FAA knows that accidents are going to occur, and they also know that the proposed changes will have limited if not minimal effect on the accidents which are occurring. BUT, it will show that they (the FAA) has done something. To date, the FAA does't have any idea of how many hours are actually flown, as they had no method in place to gain that knowledge; this consequently, affects the actual accident rate (number of accidents per 100,000 hours flown). Their methods of guessing hours, as has been testified by numerous professionals in the industry including the NTSB and HAI, are greatly flawed to say the least. This is one of the fixes involved, and going forward operators will be reporting this actual data to the FAA.

It is important to note that a lot of the mounting pressure to do something is due to the fact that HEMS accidents, just like those of major airlines are centers of attention by the media. Everyone knows when one occurs no matter how far removed they are from the locality. The difference between HEMS (as well as most helicopter aviation) and part 121 (airlines) is that helicopter operations, especially HEMS, occur in close proximity to the ground involving landings in remote locations, and thier general flight occurs at very low altitudes. The inherent dangers involving helicopter operations have been known since the day they were invented, but nothing else can even come close to doing the job. Part 121 aircraft on the other hand fly at very high altitudes while landing and taking off from well lighted airports with protected approach and departure paths. There is no way that helicopter aviation can ever be compared to part 121 flight operations, but the FAA cannot just come out and say that, they lack the backbone.

With the above stated, and with the lack of responsibility and discretion exhibited from commercial pilots flying helicopters, and with the mounting pressure from management to maximize profits, something needs to be done. Often, non-profit operators try to make the profit operators out to be the bad guy, but if they actually knew what they were talking about, "for profit vs non-profit", means absolutely nothing since that is simply a tax status and nothing more. ALL companies must be profitable to exist, regardless of the tax status. The most significant changes in this latest FAA proposal are noted below with comment (change = change to, or addition of):

Change to 91 - Revision of helicopter visibility minimums while operating in class G airspace.

This change adds a 1/2 statute mile day, and 1 statute mile night minimum visibility for helicopters which did not previously exit; helicopters could simply operate 'clear of clouds'.

This is the result of what happens when pilots and operators do not adequately police themselves. One more freedom lost to the government. If you don't protect yourself, they will protect you from yourself especially if it is THEIR best interest. Freedoms lost are never regained. Unfortunately, this minimum probably does not go far enough, and will likely not represent a significant increase in safety. Face it, if you are operating with 1/2 mile visibility and you either don't have an instrument rating, or you have the rating but minimal experience, you are on a suicide mission if you don't land immediately. Also, any experienced pilot knows how quick 1/2 mile can go to zero.

The FAA missed the boat here with regard to HEMS altogether, but they don't really care. The bottom line is that visibility minimums are simply to low for HEMS operations. Therefore this change will do absolutely nothing except show that the FAA is doing something. The FAA could have added safer visibility and altitude minimums for HEMS in their new part 135.6xx, but they didn't. This demonstrates an effort of the FAA to save face rather than do something about the real issue involving HEMS accidents, but indicative of the way the FAA does things.

Change to Part 120 - Drug and alcohol testing.

FAR part 120 was again a result of people failing to police themselves; although not helicopter related, remember the drunk pilots in Miami? This change is the requirement for operators with more than ten bases of operation to utilize an operations control center, and requires those specialists to be alcohol and drug tested.

Change to 135.63 - Requirement for a Load Manifest with a duplicate copy not carried on the aircraft.

This basically ascertains that the NTSB, the FAA, and company investigators will have access to the weight and balance data for an accident flight where nothing related to weight and balance could be recovered at the scene of the accident.

There are to many variables for this to be effective. For example, when a HEMS helicopter departs on a flight to pick up a patient, they know what the maximum patient weight they can carry is however they likely don't yet know the actual patient weight. If the patient is to large in the current configuration, then changes are made at the scene or hospital. Although it will give certain data, it will not be accurate, and ultimately will do absolutely nothing for the prevention of accidents.

Change to 135.160 - This change adds a requirement for a radio altimeter. Accident Reference 1 Accident Reference 2

The FAA used the above referenced accidents to substantiate these changes, the reports can be viewed via the links. The NTSB noted the lack of radio altimeters as a contributing factor in these accidents.

Radio altimeters are an excellent tool, and a great addition to any cockpit. But to think that they will prevent accidents in these cases is ludicrous. A radio altimeter shows the altitude above terrain where you are currently located; they shoot downward in a conical pattern which in low flying helicopters is essentially straight down. Most, if not all, radio altimeters have a warning bug which can be set at a minimum altitude which is sometimes required by operators per their policies and/or operations manuals. This bug may or may not sound a tone through the aircraft intercom system each time the aircraft descends through the minimum altitude setting which can become annoying. This is a tone of about 1 second or so in length, and will not resound unless the aircraft climbs above the minimum setting and descends through it again. In other words, if the aircraft descends through the bug, the tone extinguishes after about 1 second with no further tones unless the aircraft again climbs above the bug setting.

Many pilots set this bug to zero despite the requirement to set it at a predetermined minimum thereby defeating the purpose entirely. Setting the bug to zero does not render the altimeter useless, quite the contrary; the altimeter can be viewed and used as needed just without the warning bug; but the pilot must pay attention to it.

Accident reference 1 above: Since the altimeter shoots downward, the altimeter would provide no useful function with regard to that which a pilot would be about to encounter as he approached the wall of a volcano while in minimal visibility. This could also be the wall of a canyon, or a mountain rising rapidly from a valley. Even with the proposed visibility minimums, and a radar altimeter, the aircraft crashing into rapidly rising terrain could not likely be avoided. The bottom line here is that poor weather conditions, and close flight to terrain simply does not mix well.

Accident reference 2 above: The pilot apparently flew the aircraft into terrain, in this case the Potomac River. A radio altimeter might have helped... IF the pilot was required to fly a reasonable minimum altitude of say 500 feet AGL, and IF The pilot was required to set the altimeter to a predetermined minimum setting and complied, and IF and above all else, the altimeter emitted a periodic tone while the aircraft was below the minimum altitude setting instead of extinguishing altogether.

Two of the most important considerations in this accident are; first, the fact that it was a well equipped twin engine helicopter proving that twin engine and equipment does nothing for poor decision making; secondly, the fact that low altitude operations over water are extremely dangerous especially so at night.

Change to 135.168 - Extended over-water operations requirements for helicopters.

With this change, most importantly, if you will cross a body of water you must climb to an altitude which would permit reaching the shoreline in the event of an autorotation regardless of the size, make up, or shape, of the body of water. If you can't climb that high, then you must circumnavigate the body of water. Otherwise, you must have the equipment required in this FAR to fly over the particular body of water.

Change to 135.221 - IFR Alternate airport weather minima.

Here we go losing freedoms again. Like I said earlier when you don't police your actions, someone else is going to do it for you sooner or later. These changes greatly increase IFR minimums with regard to what they were previously for helicopter flight. Change to 135.271 - Makes all legs a HEMS Flight a part 135 leg.

This is a revision makes all flights involving an HEMS aircraft even those not yet carrying a patient but with any leg of the flight including fueling and return legs, on any flight with the intent to carry a patient, to be defined as a HEMS flight.

This is a very overdue change. This will result in a higher number of accidents to actually be classified as HEMS related, that previously were not classified as an HEMS accidents. I seriously doubt that this regulation in itself will contribute to an actual reduction in the number of accidents though.

Change to 135.293 - Initial and recurrent training requirements.

These changes are specifically relative to training for flat light, white out, and brown out conditions as well as recovery from flight into IIMC (inadvertent IMC).

The changes specified within this part are a step in the right direction, but does not do near enough. Pilots must be qualified and then more than anything, must execute the proper decision when encountering any of these conditions.

The most significant factor conducive to accidents with regard to flat light, white out, and brown out is the fact upon encountering these conditions, the pilots continue to attempt landing instead of aborting the landing using proper techniques.

With regard to encountering IIMC, the most important issue of all is avoidance. Pilots know this, and so do the operators who often push pilots to fly in poor conditions. With regard to HEMS, minimums are simply to low. A low ceiling (less than 1,000 ft AGL) would be alright with unlimited visibility. Low visibility, less than 4-miles, will never be a safe factor regardless of the ceiling. If you combine low visibility, and a low ceiling, you have put together the ingredients for disaster and it will indeed occur in the future as it has many times in the past. All the changes in the FAR's will do absolutely nothing for this.

Compounding the conditions stated above and of equivalent importance is the fact that the FAA constantly holds threats of violations over pilots who may encounter IIMC and execute the proper recovery techniques as opposed to commending them for proper action and perhaps encouraging teaching avoidance. Action such as that would not however give the FAA inspectors the authority ego stoke the so much need. This results in a number of pilots being reluctant to follow proper procedures and declare an emergency as required which ensures that the FAA will indeed be notified that the circumstance occurred. There is also a number of stupid pilots who simply believe that they can successfully descend back into VFR which is pure suicide.

Addition of 135.6xx - This is a whole new section devoted to HEMS operations.

As much as I hate government taking freedom away, this change is way overdue, but still does not go far enough. But hey, that is the FAA, constantly missing the point. But as always, it gives the illusion of the FAA doing something.

135.603 - Here is one where the FAA really missed the boat. A chance to make a difference in pilot qualifications for one of the most challenging, dangerous, and criticized helicopter jobs, and all they do is add an instrument rating requirement and refer back to 135.243 which means that by FAR, a pilot flying a VFR HEMS job (which encompasses the vast majority of HEMS jobs) is only required to have an instrument rating (amounting to 48 hours of simulated experience), and 500 hours total helicopter time. This requirement does give the illusion that the FAA is doing something regardless of how useless it is in reality.

This is a total waste of ink and paper. Mostly due to insurance demands, this was already a requirement. I don't know of a single operator who required less than 2,000 hours total time of which at least 1500 had to be helicopter; and an instrument rating was also already required. If it weren't for insurance, and the loss value to operators, they would certainly require less experience.

An instrument rating with no experience is the same as a 500 hour pilot, he has just enough experience to kill himself and whomever else happens to be onboard the aircraft. The FAA could have really made a difference here by requiring some reasonable instrument experience in any aircraft since flying instruments is flying instruments regardless of aircraft category. This is easy to prove, just take an airplane pilot with instrument experience and put him in a helicopter sim; he won't have a bit of problem. But on the other hand, take a instrument rated helicopter who has no other real experience and put him in the same sim and he will have all kinds of difficulty.

Had the FAA made a reasonable minimum flight time experience of not less than 3,000 hours total time with at least 2,500 hours helicopter time, and not less than 100 hours of instrument of which at least 50 hours of actual instrument time required, they might have made a difference. Personally, I think there ought to be an age minimum of about 30 also; it has long been proven that the thinking process is different as people age; they become wiser. That is the single most important reason that one must be 35 or older to seek the presidency of the USA.

But as I said before, this does give the illusion that the FAA is doing something which appeases the NTSB, news companies, and the non-flying public!

135.605 - Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System. Well how about this, one that really is of value to HEMS pilots! But do you think three-years to compliance is long enough? This one is also long over-due! HEMS is the most lucrative of helicopter operations; that is why it has grown so much in the last decade. But the FAA will give operators three years to reasonably equip the helicopters; totally ridiculous.

135.607 - VFR minimum altitudes and visibility requirements. Here we go again, another total miss by the FAA; again they had a chance to make a difference and they completely missed the opportunity! 800 ft AGL and 2-miles visibility is simply not safe enough except to land. If you add the low experience requirements to these poor weather conditions, the stage is set for disaster. This is a perfect of example of the fact that the FAA just does not get it! Completely surprising since the majority of HEMS accidents occur as a result of pilots who lose control while flying in low ceilings and poor visibility.

The only significant change to this is the fact that the FAA has incorporated minimums for the use NVG's (night vision Imaging system). This is another interesting aspect because the FAA has inspectors managing these programs that have absolutely no practical knowledge of what they are managing. Any FAA inspector who is going to be involved with a company operating these systems should be required to be trained and qualified in them; but not the FAA, they have those who have no experience and don't know, regulating those who have experience and do know.

The remainder of the requirements of the new 135.6xx section is relative to IFR, and other recommendations that most operators have already had in effect for the last couple of years. END$emsp;Jump to Top.