Thursday, October 22, 2015

Largest U.S. Air Ambulance Operator Embraces Satellite Data, Simulators • Federal Aviation Administration has allowed Air Methods to rely on weather data from satellites rather than onboard radar

The Wall Street Journal
By ANDY PASZTOR
October  22, 2015 7:18 p.m. ET


Air Methods Corp. is setting the pace for the U.S. air ambulance industry in satellite-based weather data and simulator training for pilots.

The Federal Aviation Administration earlier this year authorized the Colorado-based company to identify hazards from storms by relying on weather information streamed from satellites, instead of using traditional onboard radar systems.

That gave Air Methods, the country’s largest operator of emergency medical helicopters, the first all-weather fleet able to routinely use such satellite data without running afoul of comprehensive new safety regulations that went into effect months ago. The regulations and subsequent interpretation by FAA officials mandated various radar and onboard sensors to ensure flight safety in stormy weather or low visibility.

As a consequence, a big chunk of the company’s fleet was barred for months from operating under instrument flight rules. “Each day that passes without relief unnecessarily restricts public access to air medical transportation,” the company said in its request.

Earlier this year, Air Methods persuaded the FAA to grant it an exemption to resume such operations, partly arguing that meteorological conditions and forecasts transmitted by satellites are comparable to information gleaned from radars; and that the company’s enhanced pilot training and advanced operational control center offer additional safeguards for pilots, patients and medical personnel.

Operating in 48 states with more than 400 total rotorcraft and fixed-wing medical transport aircraft, Air Methods by that measure is comparable in size to Southwest Airlines Co.

Roughly one-fourth of the helicopters at Air Methods will benefit from the FAA exemption, which is currently being requested by some competitors. Calstar, a California-based trauma air rescue organization, received a similar exemption to resume flights under instrument rules, though months after Air Methods.

In an interview, Mile Allen, president of domestic air medical services for Air Methods, laid out the strategic advantages of satellite downloads and emphasized the company’s commitment to simulators.

“The satellite data is actually more suited to our type of operations,” Mr. Allen said, “because it gives pilots better situational awareness.”

Eventually, he said “we would like to be able to provide simulator training for all of our pilots once every year.”

For now, Air Methods has contracted with Flight Safety International to provide simulators for the majority of its pilots, starting in the second half of 2016.

Mr. Allen said simulators for some of the company’s aircraft types didn’t exist previously, and Air Methods has participated in verifying their fidelity through test flights.

Leading helicopter fleets serving the offshore oil and gas industry also have invested heavily in simulators. But when Air Methods started down this path two years ago, it was bucking the sentiments of many other operators of emergency medical helicopters.

In late 2014, Aaron Todd, the company’s chief executive, said “we are excited to have the opportunity to have full-motion simulators available.”

Satellite weather data typically is updated every few minutes. From a financial standpoint, it also is favored by operators because it reduces the weight and maintenance costs associated with helicopter radars.

Airlines and business jets are installing ever more sophisticated weather radar, designed to pinpoint thunderstorms, icing and different categories of storm activity.

But Mr. Allen said the technology isn’t necessary for helicopters, because crews are trained to steer well clear of any storms or icing conditions. “We operate under a strict avoidance principle,” he said.

The FAA’s comprehensive safety rules, mandating tougher training standards and beefed-up safety equipment, were issued in early 2014. Some enforcement deadlines were extended to April 2015 and beyond.

The regulations were prompted by stubbornly high accident rates for helicopters in general, and air ambulances in particular. The National Transportation Safety Board also urged steps to tighten safety requirements. And over the past few years, operators and manufacturers have instituted their own stepped-up safety initiatives.

Progress in reducing fatal accident rates, however, has been slow. The overall U.S. accident rate for civil helicopters was 3.6 events per 100,000 flight hours in 2014, roughly the same as in 2010 and 2011, according to the government-industry team leading the safety campaign. That rate was about one-third higher in 2012 and 2013.

To reach the industry’s voluntary 10-year goal of an 80% reduction in the domestic civil helicopter accident rate by 2016, the 2014 rate needs to be slashed by more than half.

- Original article can be found here:  http://www.wsj.com


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