Rex Alexander has a diverse background. Along with being an R&WI contributor (click here to read his latest article), he is currently a senior consultant at HeliExperts International LLC, a firm he co-founded. But, he has experience in the military, in manufacturing, in offshore oil and gas, and 20 years in the air medical field.
Alexander spoke at Uber’s Elevate Summit in Dallas in April, educating attendees about what kind of infrastructure would be needed to support an on-demand air taxi network. In September, he’ll be moderating a panel during R&WI’s Rotorcraft Business and Technology Summit in Fort Worth, Texas.
We caught up with Alexander to learn more about the topics he and his team of experts will be discussing at the summit and why infrastructure is one you need to know about.
How did your diverse background lead you to become an infrastructure expert?
Everybody goes, “How did you get into infrastructure and heliports?” I say, “Well I got tired of architects and engineers trying to kill me on a daily basis, so I started educating them on what was right.” And the next thing you know, after about two years, I kept getting so many phone calls from people asking for infrastructure information and advice that I started charging people for it. Out of that I got some success, and next thing you know, I'm a part owner of a company that does just that.
What do you mean by, “trying to kill me”?
In a lot of cases, when people that are building a building and want access to vertical lift, helicopter operations, the heliport is an afterthought. They'll say, “Well this is a piece of the building, or piece of the property, that we're not going to be using, so let's put the [helipad] there.” But they're not taking into consideration any of the aviation requirements or best practices set forth by the FAA. And in a lot of cases, they're not paying attention to any of the code criteria set forth by the National Fire Protection Assn., International Building Code, International Fire Code. They're just getting a can of spray paint, putting an 'H' on it saying, “Hey, we have a heliport.” And in fact, they don't.
So our goal is to educate them, bring them up to speed, so that when they are putting a heliport in, it meets FAA criteria, fire code, building code, and is all best practices. This way, it's safe, it's efficient and it's going to have longevity for the next 30 to 50 years.
I have three people on the panel. One is Rune Duke from Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assn. (AOPA). He's going to be talking about the work of his group he's associated with. They're working on the IFR piece, the infrastructure. And one of the key elements that they're involved with is what's referred to as performance-based navigation in the U.S. National Airspace. You'll hear them use the term “PBN in the NAS.” In this instance, we're going to be talking about routing, IFR routing specifically.
Cliff Johnson of the FAA will also be sitting on the panel. He works in the William J. Hughes Technical Center out in Atlantic City, New Jersey. And Cliff and I have been working on a couple of different things with the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team, which Rune was a part of and the other panelist is also part of. What Cliff's going to look at is some of the research that they have done at the tech center on infrastructure — the database infrastructure — as far as how it's implemented and how it's recorded, along with other items.
The third panelist is Jonathon Godfrey. He is a partner in a company called LZ Control, which is a subsidiary of another company that he is involved in. So when you look at infrastructure in the U.S. for heliports, the primary keeper of the data for that is the FAA. The FAA has what they call the 5010, which is the Airport Master Record. FAA 5010 information resides in the Airport Master Records database at the FAA. The problem we run into is with private heliports. Once they're in the system, there's no requirement for them to ever be re-inspected. There's no requirement for anyone from the FAA to go out and validate the information once it's in. So there's a lot of information that's on the books that is incorrect. There are heliports that haven't existed in 10 years still in the system; there are heliports that have been moved from one location to another that still haven't been updated; and there are a lot of heliports out there that have been in existence that nobody even knows about.
LZ Control was designed as a third party. The 5010 is designed around the owner sending the FAA information. Well in a lot of cases — hospitals are really a good one to look at — Mother Teresa at the Holy Divinity Cross Hospital doesn't know what a heliport is. So when she gets the paperwork, it usually goes into the trash bin and it doesn't get reported. LZ Control works off of the wiki system so it's the user that actually updates it. The pilots are the ones who enter the information as they use it, so the information gets updated. What LZ Control is working on is actually having visibility between what they have on file and what the FAA has on file to educate their owners. They're actually working with the FAA and Transportation Dept., trying to get their system implemented.
This affects the safe use of unmanned aircraft systems, too. The B4UFly app, which drone operators use to see if there are airspace restrictions, draws its information from the FAA's 5010 database. So if the information in the 5010 database is incorrect, the app will be incorrect. If you're a drone operator and the heliport you're flying near doesn't show up or is mis-located by 10 miles, you may think, “Hey I'm legal; I'm safe; I'm not causing a problem.” You could actually be off the approach end of a heliport and not even know it.
How did you select your three panelists?
I've known all of them and have worked with all of them. Duke, Johnson and Godfrey have been integral parts in our team with the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team and have been working on this infrastructure piece with me and several other people for quite a while now. These are people who represent not only the industry, but also the regulatory side, who are identifying the problem and coming up with actual solutions.
Why is low-level infrastructure important for rotorcraft professionals to be knowledgeable about?
When we look at making infrastructure more accessible, one of the challenges we look at down the road is the fact that it's going to get more crowded. And if the information isn't accurate, overcrowding is going to cause huge issues in the future. The drone and UAS world is starting to populate the airspace. Also, we're now starting to look at what's coming down the pike in the next 10 years, with things like Uber's Elevate project. Now we're adding additional stuff to the airspace. Having routing, having accurate information, is going to be pivotal because it's all going to wind up going to autonomous operations at some point in the future. And if the information is incorrect, it won't work.
I would say when you look at the individuals that'll be attending, you have a lot of the OEMs, the manufacturers, industry representatives and federal government representatives. What we're going to be talking about is going to affect them for the next 20 to 30 years, in how efficient and safe they can do business. That's going to impact passenger experience; that's going to impact regulatory compliance; that's going to impact new regulations. A lot of the stuff that's coming down the pike is going to drive efficiency and longevity. So with the expansion of the industry, how UAS, drone, VTOLs and helicopters get along in the same airspace — this piece is going to be critical. And if we don't get it right, we want to get along really well.