Commercial, Products

Better Tools for Front and Back

By Staff Writer | October 1, 2005

Vendors offer EMS operators an array of new tools to help crews work better aloft in the cockpit as well as the cabin.

With their customers searching for ways to operate safer and more efficiently, EMS vendors are pushing the development and fielding of products and services that can help operators meet those goals.

But those vendors find themselves stymied in offering solutions to customers by a hodge-podge of government-created hurdles ranging from the mundane to the geopolitical.

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On the mundane end of the scale are budgetary and bureaucratic problems at the U.S. FAA that continue to make it unnecessarily difficult for vendors to gain approval to install new equipment on helicopters.

On the geopolitical end, political and technical differences between the U.S. and European nations over satellite-based navigation systems are blamed for stalling adoption of GPS-based approaches and routes by EMS operators in Europe. Elsewhere on the world stage, the demand for night-vision goggles for U.S. troops fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan has limited the supply available to civil customers like EMS operators.

Some beneficiaries of government action--or, more accurately, inaction--may be satellite phone-based communications and flight tracking services. When Hurricane Katrina knocked out land-line and cell phone service on the U.S. Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama last month, EMS, corporate and other helicopters flying relief missions in the region that were fitted with systems from Blue Sky Network, Outerlink, Sky Connect and SkyTracwere able to stay in touch with their bases and relay vital information about the disaster.

In terms of flight safety, night-vision goggles remain very much a black-and-green subject. Researchers, skeptics and some top industry officials urge operators and pilots to take it slow in making broader use of the technology. On the other side of the debate is an assortment of advocates--from operators and pilots who have had a chance to fly with the latest-generation devices to national safety agencies in the United Kingdom and Australia--pushing for greater use of NVGs in the field.

Advocates attribute the skeptics' hesitation on NVGs to either their unfamiliarity with the latest systems or the lingering effects of bad experiences they had with first-generation devices, which were plagued with problems.

"The basic thing about NVGs today is that they add a layer of safety to your operations," said Mike Atwood, president of Aviation Specialties Unlimited, a leading promoter and vendor of NVGs. "They're not a solution to ever safety problem and they're not an excuse to fly below minimums. But they are an essential tool for keeping pilots out of danger."

Indeed, more and more operators are opting for NVGs. Major operators have decided to make all their new aircraft NVG-compatible, for instance, and this year American Eurocopter joined Aviation Specialties and Bell Helicopter's training academy among the ranks of FAA Part 141-certified NVG training facilities.

Operators continue to be interested, as well, in the benefits of GPS approaches and off-airway routes for their EMS businesses.

"Everybody's going to space-based navigation," said Greg Keller of Satellite Technology Implementation, the Alcoa, Tenn. firm that specializes in development and FAA certification of GPS routes and approaches. He may be right, but for a while that trip had ground to a halt.

The Global Positioning System satellite constellation on which such navigation is based was born as a U.S. military navigation tool. Today it is run jointy by the military and the U.S. Transportation Dept. The Pentagon, however, maintains the prerogative of interrupting the satellites' signals when national-security concerns warrant such action. That's understandable from a defense point of view, but not the viewpoint of those seeking a reliable means of civil navigation.

In part because of such concerns, the European Union elected to develop its own GPS--the Galileo Positioning System, a planned constellation of 30 satellites transmitting the timing and other signals needed for reliable navigation. But it planned to use frequencies different from those on which the U.S. system operates, setting up the aviation equivalent of the VHS-vs.-Beta videotape battle. European operators interested in GPS-based routes and approaches shied away from developing them, intimidated by the prospective requirement to choose between two incompatible equipment sets--one matched to the U.S. system, the other to Galileo.

In June, the matter was settled when European officials agreed to use signals and formats for Galileo that are compatible with the U.S. system. Keller said he expects that to spur demand for GPS approaches and routes among European EMS operators.

Demand remains high in the U.S. Keller predicted that 300 GPS approaches would be in use in the U.S. by the end of this year, with almost all used by EMS operators.

CJ Systems Aviation Group and its STAT Medevac partnership with Pittsburgh-area hospitals are the largest EMS users of such navigation. They have 90 approaches certified, said CJ Systems Aviation's president, Larry Pietropaulo, with another 50 in development. Mountain Area Medical Airlift in Asheville, N.C. is probably the biggest user of off-airway GPS routes, STI's Keller said, with 608 nm. of such routes covering a good portion of North Carolina and connecting that operator's eight certified GPS approaches.

Steve Hickok, a pioneer in GPS applications for helicopter operations, also is plugging away at the market. He has been working on developing a network of 19 GPS approaches in the Dallas/Fort Worth area for Grand Prairie, Texas-based CareFlite. The project is part of an effort to extend CareFlite's approval for single-pilot IFR operations between Dallas-area airports to cover flights to and from area hospitals. CareFlite operates five AgustaWestland A109 Powers. Hickok was working to get FAA approval of the GPS approaches by early this month.

In the back end, vendors are working to give operators and medical crews equipment customized for aircraft use and therefore more efficient in terms of weight and utility.

Metro Aviation's Maintenance and Completion Center holds 13 completion supplemental type certificates. It currently has seven domestic and five foreign customers, and recently completed 10 EC135s in EMS configurations for PHI Air Medical Group, with orders for 10 more.

CJ Systems' Heli-Dyne Systems recently won FAA certification of its Emergency Patient In-flight Care patient loading system for the Eurocopter EC145.

"We recognized a distinct need in the air medical community for a rugged and versatile EMS cot that was designed specifically for airborne use and not just ground ambulances," said Heli-Dyne President David Horton. The system was designed from the ground up to meet all the requirements of FAR/JAR 27/29, he said, can be maintained easily and properly with all PMA approved parts.

The EPIC cot uses aircraft-grade aluminum tubing with a hard-anodized coating designed to eliminate abrasion and oxidation and ensures quick and easy decontamination. An EPIC Secondary Patient Folding Stretcher (EPIC PFS1) was also designed and certified to transport equipment up to 300 lb., he said. The two stretchers are interchangeable.

Heli-Dyne's STC for the system includes aft-facing seats that are attached to the floor utilizing seat tracks only, and an optional sliding, swiveling seat, which is available for either side of the helicopter.

Air Methods Corp. also has won an STC for its Eurocopter AS350 Patient Loading System. Designed as a lightweight, durable alternative to systems on the market, the Model 1175 PLS is a derivative of the Air Methods loading system designs used on the EC130, BK117 and AS365.

The system lets Air Methods "continue to expand our line of Eurocopter products", said Arthur Torwirt, vice president of Air Methods' Products Div. The first AS350 equipped with the system has been delivered to Flight for Life of Denver.

But vendors continue to struggle to gain FAA certification of such systems. Caught in a federal budget squeeze, the agency has no money to hire new inspectors and those on the job have little time to spend on reviewing and approving STC applications. As a result, outfits like Heli-Dyne are pursuing certification as Designated Alteration Stations, which would allow an FAA-certificated employee of the company to review and approve STCs.

The inability of the FAA to promptly process STC applications "is a real concern for me," Horton said.

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