An Airbus EC135 in service with the California-based REACH Air Medical Services (Courtesy of REACH Air Medical Services)
Amid helicopter industry concern about nonexistent or inaccurate location data on U.S. heliports, especially for air ambulance operators, House appropriators want the Federal Aviation Administration to develop a national data standard to allow pilots to find heliports more easily and avoid potential hazards.
“Accurate heliport data is needed for accurate navigation charting for ingress and egress to medical centers and other landing locations," according to the report on the House Appropriations Committee's fiscal 2020 Transportation and Housing and Urban Development Appropriations Bill. "The committee directs the FAA to develop a national data standard to design and chart airspace in order to identify potential hazards and develop flight procedures for helicopter pilots, especially for helicopter air ambulance procedures.”
Helicopter Association International President Matt Zuccaro said on June 6 that "as a general concept, we support any initiative in updating the existing FAA heliport database."
"By improving the accuracy of the database, we are providing pilots and operators an enhanced tool for flight planning and in-flight decision making--ultimately enhancing the safety of flight," he said. "An inaccurate or incomplete database introduces uncertainty into our flight operations. This update/revision of the database will produce a more valuable system."
The FAA’s so-called 5010 Airport Master Record ID and contact information database, which compiles location and condition data for all U.S. airports and heliports, was a major discussion item at HAI’s Air Ambulance Safety Conference in the Washington, D.C. area last month.
At the conference, Zuccaro said heliport databases, including the FAA's own, "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."
The databases "are just not kept current," Zuccaro said.
The 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act, P.L. 115-254, requires 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 law 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.
Crawford said that FAA's research thus far has indicated that "either the IDs for these places are messed up, they’re not in the database at all, the lat-longs are incorrect" -- a state of affairs that comes about, in part, because helipads do change locations.
Section 314 of the 2018 FAA Reauthorization Act directs the FAA Administrator to review existing data on the location of heliports and helipads, including those not in the 510 database, and, if needed, “develop, as appropriate and in collaboration with helicopter air ambulance industry stakeholders, a new database of heliports and helipads used by helicopters providing air ambulance services.”
In a 2016 article for Rotor & Wing International, Rex Alexander, the president of the Indiana-based Five-Alpha LLC consulting firm and the co-chair of the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team Infrastructure Working Group, wrote that initial research on the accuracy of the FAA 5010 database in 2015 indicated that "in two states alone, the accuracy of whether a heliport actually existed was between 55 percent and 60 percent."
"On top of this, the latitude and longitude coordinates for those heliports that were identified as in existence were found to have an accuracy rate somewhere in the neighborhood of 54 percent at the time of review," Alexander wrote. "Numerous heliports were as much as 2, 3 and even 5 miles off."