February 6, 2009

Statement of John Allen, Director of Flight Standards

Before the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) on Safety of Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) Operations


Chairman Sumwalt, thank you for focusing attention on medical transport using helicopters. I appreciate the opportunity to testify before the Chairman and the members of the Board of Inquiry.

Before I continue, I must say publicly that as the FAA’s lead official for flight safety standards and a veteran pilot with more than 4,800 hours, I am first and foremost concerned with the human toll that aviation accidents leave in their wake. My heart goes out to those whose lives have been touched by these tragedies. The accidents and fatalities that bring us here today are not abstract numbers on a chart or a trend-line. These are people in great distress who rely on the pilots, emergency service providers and the FAA for safety enhancements that save lives. From where I stand, even one accident is one too many. Our goal, as always, is safe flight. With that said, you have my firm commitment that we are taking steps to enhance the safety of emergency transportation services.

To put this issue in context, there are more than 830 air medical transportation helicopters in service. The vast majority of these helicopter operators are overwhelmingly safe. Indeed, there is a lengthy list of those who not only have never experienced a fatality during medical transport, but they also have an unblemished accident record, flying for years without a single accident. The bottom line is that we are working with the NTSB to close the loop on an industry that is safe but not as safe as it could be. Mr. Chairman, we share your concerns and are working diligently to enhance the level of safety.

As you know, these operations take place in critical environments, and as such, are dependent on the pilot’s judgment at all times, especially when weather or other conditions put flight delay or cancellation on the table. In my 30 years of experience in aviation, the first rule never changes:  the pilot in command makes the call on go or no go. That’s the linchpin of a safe system. The pilot must have the fortitude to postpone a flight when necessary. There’s an aviation adage that bears repeating:  “There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” To me, bold pilots are those who take unnecessary risks, who become complacent or worse, cavalier, or who fly impaired by fatigue or illness. By that same token, the operator must create a safety culture and environment that promotes and supports the safety decisions and good judgment exercised by the pilots.

The accident numbers show that we must intensify our efforts. As a result of an FAA/industry task force created in 2004, several air medical transport safety initiatives were put in place. Because of these safety initiatives, the period from 2004 through 2007 showed a drastic reduction in helicopter air medical transport fatal accidents. Therefore, the FAA did not pursue any new regulations. We believe the existing regulatory structure is safe. The numbers prove it. However, the upward trend in 2008 has prompted a more aggressive response to this problem. It is important to remember that rulemaking is but one tool we use to advance safety.

We have also used other tools of voluntary acceptance. We have chartered a new task force with industry to create and implement safety initiatives designed to mitigate hazards in medical transport. We brought together the Association of Air Medical Services, HAI, the National EMS Pilots Association and industry operators to set the stage for the implementation of several additional safety programs.

Recently, we revised operations specifications with the HEMS community support to the use of increased weather minimums. We asked for advice on the appropriate guidance for the use of night vision goggles, as this technology evolves. Industry and government agreed that both of these were the right approach.

We also set a technical standard order in place for terrain awareness technology for helicopters — H-TAWS. We’ve provided incentives for operators to equip with night goggles and the terrain awareness technology.

In closing, I must emphasize that technology alone does not and cannot solve the problem. As you know, we routinely seek voluntary compliance on safety advances while we are considering rulemaking as a dual-prong approach to safety enhancement. But all of this is hinged on the establishment of a safety culture. A safety culture is the indispensable context for enabling technology. When a management team establishes a corporate culture that supports the decision-making skills of the pilots and treats each flight as safe passenger transportation and not as an emergency evacuation mission – the risk of an accident is reduced dramatically. This is the example we need to hold up to the entire industry.

Plainly, this is a call for leadership. From the pilot. From the medical industry. From the operators. And from the FAA. You have my commitment to lead by example. Thank you.

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