News Archive

Thoughts on IFR HEMS

Tuesday, October 6th, 2009

Most helicopter EMS programs operate under VFR only. With the high number of weather-related accidents lately, the question of mandating IFR operations is talked about a lot. I do not know of a study that compares weather-related accidents for VFR-only versus IFR helicopter EMS programs. My guess would be that IFR programs would have a lower rate of these kinds of accidents.

I have flown for two IFR programs, Mayo One (BK117 C1) and CareFlite Dallas (Augusta 109E). In both programs the pilots in general were more comfortable flying in lower weather. This is for several reasons, but mainly the extra training and the fact that they were flying a fully IFR-certified helicopter. Also, I think being IFR trained and experienced helps pilots make better go/no-go weather decisions.

Filing an IFR flight plan does take a few extra minutes. However, using the IFR system to respond to a trauma call (flight on a highway for example) is rarely done. In these cases the ground crew would have to transport the patient to the closest instrument approach (normally an airport). If we couldn’t save any time, we would advise the dispatcher that transport by ground would be faster. Time is critical and a responsible pilot must make sure not to risk delaying patient care. I seldom launched on a flight under IFR.

However, there were several times when after departing VFR and on the return flight to the hospital weather deteriorated. I would call approach and receive an IFR clearance and vectors to the hospital’s GPS approach. In general, I’d say that getting a pop up clearance was not a problem and caused minimal if any delay. Keep in mind this was Rochester, Minnesota; ATC was not as busy as some larger airports and very accommodating to Mayo One. In Dallas/Fort Worth (CareFlite) ATC was much busier but also very helpful. Here pilots are sometimes asked to turn to a different heading and may be asked to maintain VFR for a short period. Normally they will get you in the IFR system and to an instrument approach with minimal delay.

The IFR system is definitely more fixed-wing friendly. Compared to airplanes, helicopters operating under IFR is still relatively new. The development of low-level GPS routing and WAAS approaches will help change that in the future.

In general, I do not think EMS programs are able to justify the added cost of an IFR program by the increased number of flights (therefore revenue) that IFR capability brings. I think the more important point is the increased pilot proficiency it provides and the extra options it gives the pilot. In an industry that is always trying to cut costs I think highly of the programs that understand the benefits and increased safety that an IFR program brings. If I were to return to EMS flying I would definitely want to fly for an IFR program.

Due diligence

Monday, September 28th, 2009

In response to my previous blog, Jon S. brought up some very good points. He questioned whether an EMS pilot would climb into the clouds, autopilot or not, if he or she would face an FAA violation for doing so. He is absolutely right as declaring an emergency does not guarantee a pilot won’t be cited with a violation. The FAA has taken the position that if the emergency is caused by the pilot’s action or inaction, then a violation is appropriate. In many cases the NTSB has upheld the FAA’s decision.


So how does this affect an EMS pilot’s decision making process? Well, in all the EMS Part 135 operations manuals I’ve read there is a defined procedure for inadvertent IMC. Basically, it is to climb, contact the nearest ATC, declare an emergency, and perform an instrument approach. In discussing this with other operators, I was told that the local FSDO has taken the position that if a pilot does the appropriate due diligence that they will not pursue a violation.


According to the NTSB, on June 8, 2008, an EMS pilot in Texas aborted a flight because of low clouds and fog encountered en route. The request was then made to a different operator. The second pilot was notified of the flight and performed a weather check for the route of flight. After his weather check, he contacted his company’s Enhanced Operational Control Center (EOCC) to discuss his weather observations and the previous turn down. Both the pilot and EOCC supervisor were observing 10 miles visibility and ceilings acceptable for the flight. At that time, the pilot or the supervisor did not understand the reason the other pilot turned down the flight. The pilot contacted EOCC a second time to discuss that the previous flight had been turned down because of fog. The pilot and the EOCC supervisor again discussed weather observations with the same conclusion, that the restriction to visibility reported by the previous flight was not observed by any official weather reporting station.


The Bell 407 crashed in densely forested terrain killing the pilot, flight nurse, and paramedic. Sheared treetops indicated initial impact occurred with the helicopter’s main rotor blade system in a straight nose-low attitude. It happened in the exact location where the other EMS pilot had encountered low clouds and lost reference to surface lights. The other pilot told the NTSB there were no traffic or weather concerns at the time of his departure. While en route, approximately five miles south of the hospital, at 1,400 feet he encountered wispy clouds. He descended to 1,200 feet and encountered more clouds, continued to descend to 1,000 feet and encountered even more clouds, and finally descended to 800 feet when the visibility decreased rapidly. He stated that he could see to the east but had lost his surface light reference. He turned immediately to the right, towards the freeway system, and was back in good weather. He stated that the low clouds and visibility were very sudden and dramatic.


Whether a potential FAA violation affected the accident pilot’s decisions that night will never be known. This kind of accident happens too often in EMS operations as some pilots obviously underestimate the potential for a CFIT accident. Better training would definitely help. I think climbing is normally the best option, however, Jon’s point is well taken and EMS pilots who could be put in an inadvertent IMC situation need to be sure they perform reasonable due diligence.


Another good question is whether all EMS operations should be flown under IFR. That’s coming up next.

Autopilots and EMS safety

Wednesday, September 23rd, 2009

The helicopter EMS industry has been suffering through the worst accident rate in its history. In fact, according to the NTSB, 2008 was the deadliest year on record with 12 accidents and a total of 29 fatalities. As a result, the NTSB has held hearings earlier this year and issued recommendations to the FAA. In a list of additional recommendations issued by the agency this month was the use of autopilots and improved pilot training.

I have flown an EMS helicopter both with an autopilot and without and I believe it is an excellent workload-reducing tool. It can also enhance safety, as many helicopter pilots are reluctant to climb into the clouds. When faced with deteriorating or unexpected bad weather, many helicopter pilots will descend to avoid entering IMC. Understandably, this comes from a lack of experience and confidence at controlling a minimally equipped helicopter on instruments, trying to contact ATC, and setting up for an approach. Moreover, adding to the urge to descend is the fact that helicopter pilots know if they can recover back to visual conditions they can always land. However in many cases it is much safer to climb.

In a 2006 report the NTSB said HTAWS (Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems) might have helped pilots avoid terrain in 17 of the 55 accidents analyzed. However, when a pilot receives a terrain warning he or she needs to be comfortable climbing if necessary and an autopilot can be a big help.

The NTSB report also calls for improved pilot training. Training pilots to engage the autopilot, initiate a climb, contact ATC, and set up for an instrument approach will give them the confidence to use that option when appropriate. Autopilots, HTAWS, and other advanced technology tools for enhancing safety must be accompanied with the proper training to be truly effective. With the recent advances in computer technology, helicopter simulation has become realistic and less expensive.

I believe the NSTB has done a good job identifying some solutions that might truly help reduce the accident rate.

Thoughts on the Hudson River midair

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

I flew a corporate Bell 430 in and out of New York for 7 years and prior to that I worked for Liberty Helicopters flying tours. That was 14 years ago, so I didn’t know the pilot or anyone else involved in the recent accident in the Hudson River corridor. However, this accident brought back memories about the airspace congestion in New York.

When I was flying tours we were all concerned about the possibility of midair collisions, especially on nice days. The airspace is highly congested and the areas that are excluded from the Class B are small and extend from the surface of the rivers to only 1,100 feet. Many pilots considered the level of attention required in this airspace comparable to flying in combat. Although, I have no military experience I can only imagine the level of vigilance necessary when someone is trying to shoot you down. From my prospective, flying around New York safely demands a high level of alertness.

There is a sequence of reporting points up and down both the Hudson River and the East River. The pilots I worked with in New York were extremely good at stating their positions regularly. Occasionally, a pilot would fly up and down the rivers without ever talking on the radio. Technically, it’s not required as the airspace is uncontrolled, however, the self-announce frequency is published on the charts. I often wondered if the non-local pilots who did monitor the frequency actually knew where the reporting points were located as most referenced a local landmark or bridge.

Some of the news reporters commenting on this accident seemed shocked that there was no requirement to talk to ATC. I don’t think making the airspace over the rivers part of the Class B is a good idea. New York controllers are already very busy and if everyone approaching or departing a New York heliport needed a clearance it would overwhelm ATC.

When I flew the Bell 430 around New York it had a Skywatch traffic system. It was a big help in identifying aircraft close to us. Good visual scanning skills and this type of technology might be the answer to making this level of congested airspace safer.

Colorful characters

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009


It seems that almost all industries and groups have their share of larger than life personalities. For some, the publicity is good and for others it does not bode so well. Aviation has its share of colorful characters and the helicopter industry seems to attract them.


You might remember back in early February a helicopter pilot named David Martz whose antics and famous passenger got him in the news. On board his helicopter that day was rock star Tommy Lee. An LAPD helicopter pilot/officer reported that Martz flew too close to his aircraft, was flying erratically, and disobeyed orders from the air traffic control tower.


The LAPD pilot told Martz to land at Van Nays airport. When local officers arrived, the helicopter was shut down and Martz and Lee were gone. A search of the area found Martz at a local hotel bar drinking. He told the officers he started drinking as soon as he landed. A breathalyzer test was inconclusive as to whether Martz was under the influence while flying. Lee was later tracked down, questioned, and released.


This incident put a public spotlight on Martz’s past. In 2006, he landed a helicopter on a Hollywood Hills public street, in front of Lee’s house, and took Lee and a guest to a rock concert. He was charged with reckless flying.


In 2007, he was photographed grabbing a topless woman while flying a helicopter. The FAA received an e-mail and photographs describing the incident. However, they decided not to pursue it because there was no formal complaint filed and there was no proof he was flying when the photos were taken.


Recently, a video surfaced of Martz and a porn star flying over San Diego. A statement from the FAA says the tape shows Martz participating in lewd behavior while flying his helicopter. The agency issued an emergency revocation of his pilot certificate.


I have heard many different opinions on this pilot. Some said he was just enjoying the freedom of aviation and does not deserve to be harassed by the FAA. Others said he is reckless, gives the industry a bad image, and is an out of control risk taker. I am personally someone who believes the government should interfere in our lives as little as possible. However, there are times when public safety requires some form of intervention.


In this case, landing on a public street without authorization or adequate safety controls endangers the public. Flying over a populated area with such distractions can present unnecessary and unwarranted risk to persons on the ground. I understand that this is not the first or only time this type of activity has happened in an aircraft, but putting a video on the Internet really shows bad judgment.

Pedal power

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

The idea of a human-powered helicopter has intrigued many engineers and pilots. Although a practical application really does not exist, it is a good exercise in the development of highly efficient airfoils and light weight structures. As such, many colleges and universities have put together teams of engineering students to develop and build a human-powered helicopter.

A human-powered aircraft is defined as a vehicle that can carry at least one person using only what power is provided by the person(s) on board, usually by pedaling. Early attempts mainly involved airplanes. For example, the best known human-powered airplane is the Gossamer Albatross, which flew across the English Channel in 1979. Helicopters which require much more power to hover present a much bigger challenge. The two biggest problems are weight reduction and designing a highly efficient rotor system. Efficiency means that the rotors must generate a lot of lift with very little drag.

In 1980, to help further and support the idea of a human powered helicopter, the American Helicopter Society established the Igor I. Sikorsky human-powered helicopter competition. A prize of $20,000 was offered for a successful controlled flight lasting for 60 seconds and reaching an altitude of 3 meters while remaining in an area 10 meters square.

The first vehicle that actually got airborne was the Da Vinci III in 1989, designed and built by students at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in California. For high rotor efficiency, the students knew that it would be important for the blades to work with as much air as possible. A big rotor handles a large amount of air and thus requires less energy to produce lift. The Da Vinci III had a 100-foot rotor diameter and a tip speed of 50 feet per second. In order to reduce weight, rotor tip propellers provided thrust. This eliminated the need for a transmission and anti torque system. The approximate weight of the aircraft with pilot was 230 lbs. It flew for 7.1 seconds and reached a height of 8 inches. However, the helicopter was unstable and required students on the ground to assist with control. No attempt was ever made to correct the instability.

The current world record for human-powered helicopters is held by an aircraft named Yuri I, built by a team from the Nihon Aero Student Group (NASG). It used four two-blade rotor systems (10 meter diameter each) operating at 20 rpm. In 1994, it achieved a height of 20 cm for 19.46 seconds unassisted and unofficially reached 70 cm during a flight lasting 24 seconds.

As far as I can tell, the most recent attempt, although unsuccessful, at a human-powered helicopter was on August 10, 2004, by a group of engineering students at the University of British Columbia. Although their project seems to be on hold, their Web site is still up.

Many have attempted to fly human-powered helicopters both before and after the creation of the Sikorsky Prize. So far no one has met all of the Sikorsky prize’s requirements.