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Proposed federal rules aimed at reducing commercial helicopter deaths

By Mike M. Ahlers, CNN
  • Air ambulances, sightseeing businesses would be among those covered by the rules
  • Terrain alerts and programs to analyze flight risks would be required for medevac units
  • A 90-day public comment period on the proposed rules will close on January 10

Washington (CNN) -- The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday proposed broad new rules for commercial helicopter operators -- including medical evacuation services -- hoping to turn a deadly tide that has swept over the industry in recent years.

In the air ambulance industry -- one devoted to saving lives by evacuating injured people or ferrying them between hospitals -- 28 crashes have resulted in 57 deaths since January 2008. In the most recent crash, a pilot and two medical personnel were killed when a helicopter went down August 31 near Walnut Grove, Arkansas.

The proposed rules for medevac helicopters would:

-- Require flights to operate under regulations now used for commuter aircraft, which have stricter flight time limitations and crew rest requirements.

-- Require helicopters to have warning systems that alert pilots when they are near terrain.

-- Require dispatch centers to monitor weather conditions and track the flights.

-- Require pilots to have programs to analyze flight risks.

The FAA also is seeking comment on requirements to have recording devices like the flight data recorders on commercial aircraft.

The proposals appear to track recommendations sought by the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB declined to comment on the proposals Thursday, saying it needs time to review them.

The FAA also proposed and array of new rules for commercial helicopter operators such as those who conduct tours over cities or parks, or those who ferry businessmen. Many of the rules, the FAA said, would require operators to use enhanced procedures for flying in challenging weather, at night, and when landing in remote locations.

"This is a significant proposal that will improve the safety of many helicopter flights in the United States," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a written statement.

"The FAA's initiatives have helped the helicopter industry make progress on many safety issues, but it's time to take steps towards mandating these major safety improvements," he said.

FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said the proposal is designed to protect passengers, patients, medical personnel and pilots.

A number of high-profile helicopter incidents in recent years has blighted the reputation of medical evacuation services. In September of 2008, a Maryland State Police medevac flight crashed after bad weather forced the helicopter to divert to Andrews Air Force Base outside of Washington.

The plane crashed about three miles north of the runway, killing four -- the pilot, two medical personnel, and one of the two automobile accident patients being transported.

In a report last year, the NTSB faulted the pilot, but also said that the FAA's classification of all medevac flights by government-owned aircraft as public operations was contrary to laws that state medevac aircraft should be treated as civil aircraft.

According to the FAA, air ambulance accidents declined in 2005 and 2006 following an FAA safety initiative. But 2008 proved to be the deadliest year on record, with six accidents that claimed 24 lives.

The commercial helicopter sector also has a grim record, with 75 accidents resulting in 88 fatalities from 1994 through 2008.

A 90-day public comment period on the new rule closes on January 10.