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FAA to Look at New Rules for Medical Helicopters

Feb 9, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP Finally, after years of urging and a number of highly publicized accidents and fatalities, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will be looking at new medical helicopter regulations.  The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that in testimony given to the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), a senior FAA official noted that the agency is working on a variety of safety regulations.

The FAA’s John Allen said that regulations concerning ground collision-avoidance warning systems, use of night-vision goggles, increased pilot and flight dispatcher training, and improved visibility and weather risk assessment, are in discussions said the WSJ, and that the agency plans on issuing regulations “in the not too distant future” around broad installation of flight data recorders on such helicopters, said the WSJ.

The hearings were in response to a glut in emergency medical helicopter tragedies that made history last year and included rule violations and dangerous actions that caused fatalities among patients and medical and flight crews, reported USA Today in a piece last week.  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.  As a matter-of-fact, the NTSB voted—for the first time ever—to put safety enhancements for air-ambulance flights on its annual "Most Wanted" list of suggested improvements.  

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.  None of the requests have been fully implemented.  Also, in an earlier USA Today report on the industry, a number of cases in which pilots ignored or defied rules were revealed.  The Washington Post also 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, 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.  In response to the NTSB’s questions about its much-criticized negligence, Allen said, "you don't want government reacting too quickly," quoted the WSJ.

Meanwhile, five of the crashes involved night flying in poor weather in which the pilots were unprepared, said the NTSB, according to a USA Today report, which also noted that of the 35 deaths, six 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 NTSB has long begged the FAA to increase its regulation of medical aircraft, but—according to the NTSB, the FAA has not been responsive concerning four recommendations made three years ago, reported the Washington Post.  Sadly, the recommendations were a response to 55 accidents and 54 deaths, which occurred from 2002 to 2005 and in which 29 fatalities were avoidable had the FAA implemented the regulations.

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