The proposed regulations include a requirement for all air ambulance helicopters to have electronic systems that alert flight crew to terrain or other obstacles. Medical helicopters fly at lower altitudes than commercial helicopters and are often outside the range covered by air traffic controllers. By flying at lower altitudes, however, medical helicopters are also more frequently faced with obstructions. As of 2009, approximately 40 percent of air ambulance helicopters either had those terrain warning systems or were being considered for the systems.
Furthermore, the FAA wants stricter weather limitations for medical helicopter pilots flying without the help of navigational instruments and wants pilots in medical helicopters to be certified to fly using those instruments. Finally, medical helicopters would have to undergo pre-flight risk analysis and would have to ensure on-board medical personnel are trained in safety measures and follow rules regarding rest requirements and flight time limitations.
In 2008, there were six accidents involving medical helicopters. Twenty-four people died in those accidents.
"We can prevent accidents by preparing pilots and equipping helicopters for all of the unique flying conditions they encounter," said FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt. "These new rules are designed to protect passengers, patients, medical personnel and pilots."
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The NTSB has not commented on the FAA's proposed regulations.
The proposed regulations now go through a 90-day public comment period, which will close on January 10, 2011. According to the FAA, there are currently 74 air ambulance companies that operate approximately 850 helicopters. Those helicopters carry approximately 400,000 patients and transplant organs each year.