An Explanation Is Owed: Why Hasn’t Safety Technology Been Ordered?

Recently, additional safety recommendations for helicopter ambulances were piled on top of recommendations issued two years ago. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) can issue recommendations faster than the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) can respond. (See Aviation Safety Digest, ‘Despite Recent Recommendations, Helicopter Ambulance Safety Remains an Elusive Enigma’)

Here’s a good project for the Department of Transportation Inspector General (DOT/IG): why does the FAA take so much time executing corrective action per the NTSB’s recommendations?

The most recent example concerns Terrain Awareness Warning Systems (TAWS). In 2006, the NTSB recommended that helicopter ambulances be required to have this technology, which had already been developed by a number of avionics manufacturers. Yet here we are, two years later, with the FAA having promised to issue a requirement and – nada, zippo, nothing. The FAA was supposed to have issued a proposed requirement, for industry and public comment, early this year. As the saying goes, we’re still waiting.

In its FAA Reauthorization Act of 2009 (H.R. 915), the Congress has asked the FAA to issue rulemaking within one year regarding, among many issues of air safety, TAWS for helicopter ambulances. That directive reflects Congressional impatience but does not get at the crucial question that the DOT/IG is best equipped to analyze: why has it taken so long, since 2006, for nothing to occur?

The reason the question is pertinent is straightforward: at least one avionics manufacturer has developed a helicopter TAWS and, under the supplemental type certificate (STC) process, has sold hundreds of TAWS for installation on helicopters. The technology is out there. It’s being sold. It’s saving lives by reducing the number of collisions with terrain and man-made obstacles.

Used here will be the example of Honeywell’s TAWS. Over 50,000 systems have been sold, including over 1,500 sets of TAWS equipment for helicopters. The software in the helicopter TAWS has been modified for the low altitude operations typical of helicopter missions. According to Honeywell’s marketing literature on helicopter TAWS:

— Algorithms are tailored specifically for helicopter operations.

— The TAWS allows pilots to land helicopters anywhere, not just on an airport or a runway.

— It allows pilots to fly closer to the terrain/obstacle, horizontally and vertically, without issuing alerts.

— It features a low altitude mode for operations in close proximity to terrain/obstacles.

— It features an inhibit mode for operations in extremely close proximity to the ground.

One could extol the many features of the Honeywell TAWS, including its integration with the Global Positioning System (GPS) for really superb integration with the helicopter’s flight path. Basically, the system provides ample warning of dangerous terrain on the flight path ahead, and the same warning whether the obstacle is a mountain or a tall antenna (see illustration below).



Including the annunciator and switch panel, the helicopter TAWS sells for between $25,000 and $35,000. Given the cost of a crash and the multimillion dollar losses in lives and flying machinery, the price of a helicopter TAWS is a life- and company-saving bargain.

Testimonials laud the system’s effectiveness:

“If a pilot really makes a huge mistake and gets himself in a situation where he shouldn’t, and that’s in the clouds and in a valley, you’ve got a way to fly out of the valley.” Blue Hawaiian Helicopters of Maui

“[Helicopter TAWS] functions as a second set of eyes in the single pilot cockpit.” Evergreen Helicopters – operator for Providence Alaska Medical Center

“Following Hurricane Katrina, Arkansas Children’s Hospital deployed one of our medically configured S76 C+ helicopters to assist with the evacuation of patients from the city of New Orleans. The Angel One pilots found the [TAWS] to be an invaluable safety tool by providing assistance in remaining clear of all the numerous unit towers and buildings that surround some of New Orleans’ downtown hospitals.” Arkansas Children’s Hospital

Despite the proven technology, its cost effectiveness, and despite the numerous encomiums from operators, the FAA has failed to act on the NTSB’s recommendation to install TAWS on all helicopter ambulances. More than dilatory rulemaking is required. The FAA owes an explanation: if the technology can be deployed by some operators via the STC process, why hasn’t it been mandated for everybody operating a helicopter ambulance?