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Air ambulance safety rules proposed by FAA

A total of 126 people were killed in 135 crashes from 1992 to 2009, with 2008 the deadliest year.

By Carolyne Krupa — Posted Oct. 26, 2010

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New air ambulance helicopter rules proposed by the Federal Aviation Administration call for more pilot training, use of advanced safety equipment and tighter procedures for flying in hazardous conditions.

The recommendations come after a spate of air ambulance crashes in recent years. The FAA said 126 people were killed in 135 incidents between 1992 and 2009, including a midair collision between two helicopters. The worst year was 2008, when 24 people were killed in six crashes.

Computerized helicopter terrain awareness and warning systems, which signal obstacles, would be mandatory on air ambulance helicopters under the new rules. Air ambulance operators would be required to do preflight risk analysis, conduct safety briefings for medical personnel, and follow procedures for flying in bad weather and landing in remote areas.

Companies with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances would have to establish control centers, and commanding pilots would have to hold an instrument rating. The FAA also proposed that all aircraft, including air ambulances and other commercial helicopters, be required to transmit to their base a copy of a load manifest, which includes the aircraft's weight and passenger list.

The rules are meant to protect passengers, patients, pilots and medical personnel, FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement. "We can prevent accidents by preparing pilots and equipping helicopters for all of the unique flying conditions they encounter," he said.

If approved, the changes would cost the industry $136 million, with a projected $160 million benefit during the next decade. The FAA, part of the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, is asking for feedback through Jan. 10, 2011. The proposed rules were published Oct. 12 in the Federal Register (link).

The Assn. of Air Medical Services, a trade association for medical transport companies, said in an Oct. 7 statement that it is reviewing the recommendations and will offer feedback. "We would like to reiterate that regulation alone is not enough. A multilayered approach is necessary," the association said.

Improving safety for helicopter emergency medical services was the subject of the National Transportation Safety Board's recommendations in September 2009. Many NTSB guidelines were incorporated into the FAA's proposed rules, including more training, increased use of technology to aid vision at night and during bad weather, and better collection and analysis of flight, weather and safety data.

The FAA also proposed new limits on how long flight crews can work and how much they're required to rest.

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