AW119 Summit Air Ambulance
Location data about U.S. heliports is often inaccurate or nonexistent in the FAA’s master database, which leaves air ambulance operators and other pilots with inaccurate information about where to find safe landing zones.
“The databases that show heliports, including the FAA’s databases that show heliports, are not accurate in any way, shape or form as to the status of the facility, whether it’s still there or not, the conditions, whether it’s manned, unmanned, what the operating hours are,” Helicopter Association International President Matt Zuccaro said May 8. “They are just not kept current.”
The FAA’s so-called 5010 airport ID and contact information database compiles location and condition data for all airports and heliports in the U.S. It was a major topic of discussion May 8 at HAI’s Air Ambulance Safety Conference outside Washington, D.C., where Zuccaro spoke. The database shows where they are, what they are called and is used to feed other databases across the aviation industry including flight-safety apps and other tools.
In the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, Congress is requiring the FAA to collect better information from the helicopter industry under part 157, which covers the construction, alteration, activation and deactivation of airports and heliports. A focus of the 2019 act is making the database more accurate and useful for helicopter operators, specifically, according to Nolan Crawford, aviation safety inspector for flight technologies and procedures at the FAA.
“We have been mandated to work with the helicopter air ambulance community to find out what is going on with the helipads because what we are being told and what we are finding out through research is either the IDs for these places are messed up, they’re not in the database at all, the lat-longs are incorrect,” Crawford said at the HAI conference. “One of the things I think we can all agree on is helipads change locations.”
Hospitals often will decide to build a new wing or parking garage, change the location of a helipad or add one, and fail to notify the FAA so its location can be entered in the database, he said. Air ambulance pilots need to know when helipads change location to avoid having to search for a spot to land during an emergency.
“That helipad, to them, sometimes is just a piece of concrete,” he said.
Many pilots use the Before You Fly app, which takes its airspace and heliport location data from the 5010 database. The same app is used by unmanned aircraft system (UAS) pilots to know what airspace to avoid while flying their drones.
“If that data isn’t correct, [drone pilots] don’t know where it is,” he said. “If they don’t know where it is, they could put a drone right over the top of your heliport as you’re starting to lift or as you come out of the clouds on an instrument procedure.”
The same data is used to design instrument-approach procedures for instrument flight rules (IFR) flying in bad weather. Air ambulances routinely fly in low visibility and use instrument approach procedures to known helipads. There are about 1,500 helicopter air ambulance instrument flight procedures into hospitals, clinics and other landing spots like interstate rest areas, Crawford said.
“If this data is not correct out of the 5010, when we go to flight check these procedures, when we go to try to get them into the other databases, they are just not going to be correct,” Crawford said. “So, what we ask you to do is, if these things change, let us know.”
The current reporting form is geared toward airports, but the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team’s infrastructure working group is meeting with industry and the FAA to develop a process for updating the 5010 database to make it more applicable to helicopters.
Air ambulance operations also should monitor the areas where they fly for new helipads and ensure the information for existing infrastructure is correct in the 5010 database, Crawford said.
“We’re not necessarily asking for you to be a tattle-tale on the hospital,” he said. “We’re not asking for you to be the police of the database … but if you know a heliport changes, if it goes to the other side of the hospital, the hospital closes or they put in a heliport they never had before … reach out to them and make sure they understand there is a requirement to notify FAA anytime they open a heliport, they deactivate a heliport or they alter a heliport in a significant way.”