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FAA Introduces New Medical Helicopter Rules

Apr 27, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP

It is generally known that last year was the deadliest in emergency medical helicopter history, with accidents involving air-ambulance flights causing fatalities among patients and medical and flight crews. Finally, after much criticism and too many fatalities—35—last year alone—the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just announced it has plans to improve air ambulance safety, said the Houston Chronicle.

Director of the FAA’s flight standards service, John Allen, told a congressional aviation subcommittee that the FAA has begun “developing new, stricter rules for medical helicopters,” according to the Houston Chronicle.

Late last year, federal accident investigators announced that the air-ambulance industry and its regulators moved too slowly to stop the onslaughts of accidents that involved nine air-ambulance crashes and 35 deaths.  According to a prior piece in the Washington Post, 29 deaths took place in the course of 13 emergency medical flights over one year, noting that the accidents, according to safety experts, were caused by human error or bad weather, to name a couple.

Five of the crashes involved night flying in poor weather in which the pilots were unprepared, said the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), according to an earlier USA Today report, which also noted that six deaths involved patients, representing the most deaths in a 12-month period for that industry.  The NTSB also learned that pilots broke rules or exercised risky behavior—such as a pilot agreeing to fly in inclement weather after another pilot refused to do so—in three of the cases.

The move to increase safety standards follows numerous unprecedented, highly publicized patient deaths and accidents and ongoing criticism that regulators did not move quickly enough, said the Houston Chronicle. “The recent accident level is alarming and it is unacceptable,” said Robert Sumwalt, a member of the NTSB. “We are very pleased to hear the FAA announce a rule-making initiative,” quoted the Houston Chronicle.

Late last year, federal accident investigators announced that the air-ambulance industry and its regulators moved too slowly to stop the onslaughts of accidents and, in January 2006, the NTSB urged the FAA to make air-ambulance flights subject to more stringent operating rules, require companies to address possible risks before each flight, and install devices that warn pilots in danger of accidentally striking the ground or other obstructions. An earlier USA Today report revealed a number of cases in which pilots ignored or defied rules and the Washington Post noted that safety experts complain that medical helicopter regulations are more lenient that those governing general commercial aviation.

Other safety experts and lawmakers have also been after the FAA to mandate safety hardware for medical helicopters, said the Journal in a prior report, which pointed out that the FAA has relied on voluntary industry compliance instead.  It took a number of scandalous accidents and numerous deaths for the FAA to take a closer look at ways to improve its operations.

Now, the FAA will require medical helicopter operators to change procedures and use new equipment; however, writing and implementing the rules could take years. The FAA is also calling for warning system installation to alert pilots before they fly into ground and will “require operators to formalize the process for evaluating risks and deciding whether to accept flights,” said the Houston Chronicle.

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