Read More: Katrina Remembered
November 17, 2020

First came the floodwaters. Next came the helicopters.

US Coast Guard (USCG) Aviation Survival Technician Petty Officer 2nd Class Joel Sayers, suspended beneath a hovering orange USCG rescue helicopter, is lowered to the rooftop of a home. His mission: to save an elderly woman clinging to that roof, the house now surrounded by rising floodwaters. It is Aug. 29, 2005, the first day of Hurricane Katrina rescue operations and mere hours after the flood levees failed, releasing billions of gallons on storm-sieged New Orleans.

As Sayers touches down, the woman anxiously rushes toward him, pointing and shouting to be heard above the roar of the rotors; her husband is trapped in the attic below their feet, unable to escape. Sayers drops down and looks through the small opening in the roof the woman managed to escape through. The face of her trapped husband peers back.

Unable to widen the hole any further using the rescue helicopter’s lightweight crash ax, Sayers realizes he needs something with more weight—and a better plan. He speaks to the man through the ragged opening, shaking his hand, calming him, assuring him, and promising to return soon. He then ties a brightly colored strip of cloth around one of the roof’s visible vent pipes to better identify the house before convincing the woman to leave her husband behind … temporarily.

Katrina Strikes
Recently, we observed the 15-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, widely considered one of the worst natural disasters in the history of the United States. Forming over the Bahamas on Aug. 23, 2005, the storm crossed into southern Florida as a Category 1, gathering strength in the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico before wreaking catastrophic damage on parts of south Florida and stretches of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and unleashing mass flooding in the greater New Orleans area.

In A Failure of Initiative, the 2006 federal after-action report by the US House of Representatives that examined the response to Hurricane Katrina, both the National Weather Service and the National Hurricane Center received praise for their forecast efforts. Storm track projections were available nearly 56 hours before Katrina’s arrival, with the landfall prediction off by a mere 15 miles.

In its preparations for Katrina’s arrival, the USCG issued broadcasts to mariners—repeated radio warnings to the offshore recreational and commercial fishing communities—and pre-positioned key rescue assets to safe areas ahead of the storm, thereby ensuring airframe survivability and promoting a rapid response posture as soon as the weather conditions permitted.

Despite all early warnings and preparations—and as it remains today with economically challenged communities where seasonal natural disasters are common—thousands of New Orleanians were simply unable to evacuate ahead of the storm. But Katrina wasn’t just a storm. The extreme rain, surging waters, and high winds stressed the city’s extensive flood protection system to the breaking point.

Read More: Power Play
November 17, 2020

Will electric motors propel the next generation of helicopters?

Climate change has accelerated research on alternatives to fossil fuels, with electric propulsion viewed as a leading contender. While the fixed-wing and advanced air mobility sectors are blazing the trails, research and development into electric propulsion for helicopters is also in progress, although to a much lesser degree.

Currently, electric helicopters account for only about 5% of all publicly known electric aircraft developments, according to the Roland Berger Electric Aircraft Database. As Nikhil Sachdeva, project manager and lead for electric propulsion at the London-based consulting firm explains, the electrification of a helicopter simply requires replacing the fuel tank and turboshaft assembly with a completely electric power train comprising a battery, power electronics, electric motors, and the necessary cabling.

“These subsystems are already seeing success in small general aviation aircraft and in urban air mobility, and we expect them to be relevant for small to medium-sized helicopters,” Sachdeva says.

One constraint on electric propulsion for all vehicles is the current limits of energy density, which is the amount of energy stored in a battery per unit volume. Sachdeva adds that further improvements are constantly being made in battery energy densities and costs, primarily driven by the automotive sector, that extend the range of electric-powered helicopters and enable larger helicopters to be electrified.

Read More: Is AMT Education Ready for the 21st Century?
November 17, 2020

Pandemic conditions may accelerate Part 147 reforms.

Well before COVID became a household word, the aviation industry was already struggling with meeting the demand for qualified aviation maintenance technicians (AMT). For years, the number of applicants for AMT training has been outstripped by the number of experienced AMT leaving the field, leading to forecasts of crippling labor shortages. Another hurdle to building a sustainable pipeline of AMT talent, according to industry observers, is the antiquated Part 147 regulations that limit the flexibility of AMT schools and their ability to deliver graduates trained for the modern aviation workplace.

Originally established under the US Civil Aviation Administration, a precursor to the FAA, 14 CFR Part 147 governs all aspects of training toward an airframe and power plant (A&P) certificate. AMT schools must teach a prescribed number of hours on general, airframe, and power plant topics; 1,900 of those hours are required to be “class-seat hours,” where students must be physically present. Graduates must pass the FAA written and oral tests, based on the agency’s mechanic Airman Certification Standards (ACS), to receive their A&P certificates. Neither the regulation nor the subject areas it dictates be taught have been significantly revised since 1962.

Under Part 147, AMT schools aren’t only told what curriculum to teach, they’re told exactly how that curriculum must be taught, and they must obtain FAA approval to modify operating procedures. For example, each AMT student must still learn wood and fabric repair techniques suitable for antique aircraft, while their schools face a daunting regulatory gauntlet to receive approval for teaching avionics and health and usage monitoring systems.

Proponents of reform argue that the FAA’s antiquated mandates for AMT education inhibit those schools’ flexibility to operate in an accredited education environment; accredited institutions are generally given flexibility on curriculum and how that curriculum is delivered. Industry observers also charge that the 58-year-old Part 147 curriculum contains large gaps, such as helicopter-specific systems and maintenance, that leave students ill prepared for work in modern aviation. They urge the adoption of Part 147 reforms that would allow schools flexibility in how they deliver the curriculum required by the ACS while fully preparing students to meet industry needs.

Industry advocates, led by the Aviation Technician Education Council (ATEC), a group that represents US AMT schools, have been working with the FAA for more than a decade to modernize Part 147. Unfortunately, the drawn-out process has led to FAA-proposed rules that further limit flexibility. In response, the industry has employed a different strategy for change: to force reform through congressional mandate.

In December 2019, the Promoting Aviation Regulations for Technical Training (PARTT) 147 Act was introduced in Congress (S. 3043 / H.R. 5427). The industry-supported, bipartisan, bicameral bill, if passed, would direct the FAA to use community-drafted, performance-based regulations to define the A&P curriculum and to defer to the Department of Education in areas concerning the quality of education. The FAA would maintain oversight of an AMT program’s facilities, equipment, and instructor qualifications. The FAA would still control the ACS, which in turn drive AMT education curriculum, providing the agency with the means to evaluate the performance of individual students, as well as the performance of the AMT school, through analysis of student passage rates.

The overall result of the law would be the modernization of how aviation technical schools teach, which includes the flexibility to adequately support the aviation industry’s technical workforce needs.

Along Comes COVID
In the spring of 2020, as the PARTT 147 Act was gaining momentum in the US House and Senate, COVID struck. Overnight, AMT schools across the country closed. Administrators and faculty began assessing how to respond to the virus. Educators of all types across the country have demonstrated the pitfalls of pivoting to an online learning platform; this was exceptionally difficult for AMT schools, given the FAA approvals required to deliver any of the mandated 1,900 class-seat hours virtually.

By the end of March, the FAA announced a “short-circuit” relief program that allowed AMT schools greater flexibility to use electronic and online training and assignment delivery during the pandemic. Many schools took advantage of this offer.

In May, ATEC surveyed its member schools about the impact of COVID on their operations. The group asked the same questions again in September to gauge the level of change across the aviation maintenance training industry. In May, two schools announced they’d suspended operations. This number increased to five in September. Conversely, the number of schools moving to some level of online instruction steadily increased as the pandemic dragged on.

“In the United States, we have about 180 certificated programs, with a little under half of them responding to the survey,” says ATEC Executive Director Crystal Maguire. “All of these schools were traditionally hands-on, with only four having received permission for any online content prior to COVID. By this summer, about 60% of our schools had some content online.

“Interestingly, the majority of the schools would like to maintain the level of virtual instruction beyond the pandemic time line,” says Maguire. “This is a piece of the flexibility we seek.”

Unfortunately for some, the flexibility wasn’t enough in the face of the current Part 147 regulations. ATEC estimates that 20% of the country’s AMT schools have suspended their programs, either temporarily or permanently, since March.

Read More: Arizona in Flames
November 16, 2020

Arizona often sounds the starting gun for western North America’s wildfire season due to its climate (hot and dry) and widespread vegetation that dies or goes dormant (which, either way, dries out), starting in the spring. Those conditions and fuels then meet either lightning or, four times out of five, human sources of ignition such as untended campfires, tow chains dragging and sparking on the road, flicked cigarettes, fireworks, or any number of easily preventable causes. Then it’s conflagration time.

Once lit, Arizona’s varied terrain can accelerate a fire’s spread and hamper its control. Rugged canyons spread fires both upslope, as you would expect, but winds can become twisted in those canyons, driving the fire also down or across to the opposing face. That terrain also hampers access by ground crews and air crews alike. Even relatively flat expanses of grasses pose challenges, as winds both drive the fire directly and carry embers far beyond the involved area, igniting noncontiguous lands.

What’s needed are tools to quickly bring the fight to the fires. 

Read More: Why the H145?
August 15, 2020

PHI is the only offshore helicopter operator flying the Airbus H145 in the Gulf of Mexico. Why add this model to its fleet?

The Gulf of Mexico is home to nearly 2,000 offshore oil and gas platforms, from production rigs with a handful of personnel to sprawling drilling platforms. As oil fields are explored and exploited farther offshore, operators must respond to the challenges. PHI responded with the H145.

The company formerly known as Petroleum Helicopters Incorporated has been involved in fossil-fuel discovery and production since 1949, starting with three Bell 47 helicopters. While it officially trimmed its name to simply PHI in 2006, over the years the company has expanded its fleet and range of missions. PHI now operates 220 aircraft at bases around the world, supporting oil and gas production, wind farms, onshore mining, air medical, search-and-rescue operations, and maintenance, repair, and overhaul services.

 

Read More: Life Flight Network: Connecting Community with Care
August 15, 2020

This rural HAA service goes beyond mere transport.

A picturesque rural town of 14,000 in northeastern Oregon, La Grande is nestled in a fertile farming and ranching valley surrounded by snow-tipped mountains. The community is fairly isolated, an hour’s drive from the next town of similar size, Pendleton, Oregon, and hours away from larger communities. La Grande is the county seat for Union County, which has a total population of about 25,700 occupying slightly more than 2,000 square miles.

Just west of the popular Hells Canyon National Recreation Area on the Snake River, the region attracts serious outdoor enthusiasts year-round. Warm in the summer and snowy in the winter, it’s a haven for those who hike, bike, camp, climb, and operate all-terrain vehicles (ATVs), off-road motorcycles, and snowmobiles. 

La Grande’s rural, isolated location, paired with its attractiveness to outdoor recreationists, makes helicopter air ambulance (HAA) service a necessity here. The ability to quickly respond and transport out of rugged and remote locations to appropriate medical care is fundamental to the community’s health and well-being.

Vital Link to Timely Care

Health-care services for La Grande and the surrounding area are provided by Grande Ronde Hospital. A Level IV trauma center and designated critical-access hospital for initial emergency care located within La Grande, it provides patients with evaluation, stabilization, and advanced-trauma life support services prior to transport to a center offering more-advanced care (trauma centers range from Level I, which provides the highest level of care, to Level V).

A quick look at the map demonstrates the La Grande community’s need for helicopter air ambulance services. The next-highest-level trauma centers, both Level III, are 42 miles northwest in Pendleton, Oregon, and 50 miles north in Walla Walla, Washington. The closest Level II is 129 miles southeast in Boise, Idaho, while the closest Level I trauma centers are more than 195 miles to the west, across the Cascade Mountains in Portland, Oregon.

To meet the need for faster access to higher-level care, Life Flight Network began serving La Grande in 2011 as the region’s first HAA operator. Fixed-wing operator AirLink Critical Care Transport had previously operated out of the Eastern Oregon Regional Airport (KPDT), 7 miles south of the hospital. Grande Ronde Hospital supported the new air ambulance provider by constructing a $1.2 million helipad at the hospital in 2012, increasing immediate access to the facility for airlifted patients. The results were immediately evident.

“When you choose to live in a rural community, you accept that specialized services available in larger communities are not as quickly available to you,” says April Brock, emergency department manager at Grande Ronde Hospital. “Having Life Flight Network allows us to get people in our community to that care. Since the service started, we’re seeing patients getting to the lifesaving interventions they need, whether that be here or at a higher-level-of-care facility, in a more timely fashion.”

Read More: HUMS: Not Just for Heavy Iron Anymore
August 14, 2020

Improved technology brings HUMS to light, medium markets.

What if an operator could tell—just by looking at a computer screen—that a particular bearing on an aircraft was showing signs of premature wear? How would that change how maintenance is planned and conducted?

Heavy civil and military helicopter operations have had that capability for decades through onboard HUMS (health and usage monitoring systems), but adoption of that technology by operators of smaller aircraft had stalled. But that’s changing, as the next generation of HUMS equipment is evolving to meet the needs of the light and medium rotorcraft markets.

Read More: Stacy Sheard: All In for HAI
August 14, 2020

Incoming HAI chair focuses on coming together to overcome challenges.

Corporate helicopter captain Stacy Sheard began her one-year term as chair of Helicopter Association International on Jul 1, 2020. Her interest in helicopters as a young girl sparked an aviation career that has taken her around the world, preparing her to represent a global industry as it navigates its way back from the COVID-19 pandemic.

Stacy’s imagination was first captured by helicopters while growing up in Clovis, California, a small agricultural town at the base of the Sierra Nevadas. Every spring and summer, helicopters flew from the nearby Fresno Air Terminal to the mountains, drawing her eyes skyward.

“I was about 11 or 12 when I really started taking notice,” she recalls. “They were always flying by to fight fires, and I thought, ‘Wow, I want to do that!’ The show Airwolf was on TV about that time too. That was a huge part of growing up and really inspired me. I loved that show and helicopter.”

It was the early 1980s, and flight schools were few and far between. The money needed to learn to fly was even harder to come by. Undeterred, a young Stacy rode her bike to the Fresno Air Terminal (since 1996 the Fresno Yosemite International Airport, KFAT) and offered to sweep hangar floors at Rogers Helicopters as a way to be around the machines and learn more. The helicopter operator declined her offer.

“I knew I wanted to fly, but I didn’t know how I was going to pay for it,” she says. “Then my mom gave me a book full of Black Hawks. I think that was what helped me decide that I would join the army and learn to fly there.”

In 1990, Stacy enlisted in the US Army. Her initial assignment was working as a Russian linguist and analyst for the National Security Agency. Four years in, she applied for the warrant officer program and flight school. She graduated in 1995 and flew Hueys and Black Hawks for six years before leaving the army in 2001.

Read More: Helinet Flies Ahead
June 08, 2020

Like many of her colleagues in aviation, Kathryn Purwin has gotten The Call—the one that delivers dreaded news about a loved one or coworker, the one that transforms your life into Before and After. Some time around Sep. 11, 2015, Kathryn learned that her husband, Alan Purwin, had been killed when the airplane he was on crashed in Colombia.

Best known for his film production work as a helicopter stunt pilot and aerial coordinator, Alan was the chairman of Helinet Aviation Services, a multimission helicopter operator based in Los Angeles. Since 1984, he had flown for nearly 150 movies and television productions, including the box-­office blockbusters Air Force One, Armageddon, The Fast and the Furious, Jurassic Park, and Transformers. Considered an innovative film production pilot, he was responsible for iconic stunts such as the helicopter chase scene in the 2003 movie The Italian Job.

Helinet

Alan founded Helinet, originally called West Coast Helicopters, in 1987 at Van Nuys Airport (KVNY) in Los Angeles. Starting with a Bell 206 LongRanger, Alan and a partner, Michael Tamburro, provided flight services for several Los Angeles–based business professionals and athletes. In 1988, West Coast began transporting organs for LA-based transplant centers. Two years later, it secured its first newsgathering contract.

Charter, organ transport, electronic newsgathering—the fledgling helicopter company was acquiring a diverse list of missions. “I’ve watched this company grow from the very beginning,” says Kathryn. “I remember when Alan had one helicopter, one desk, and one phone line.”

Kathryn first met Alan at—where else?—an airport. She had attended the University of California, Los Angeles, with a double major in history and political science, intending to become a lawyer. But that plan was sidetracked when a friend took her flying. She was hooked.

Instead of a lawyer, Kathryn became a commercial pilot, flying business jets (she holds commercial multiengine and instrument fixed-wing ratings and also holds a helicopter license). When Alan started West Coast Helicopters, the two were already friends; they married in 1994. 

In 1998, Alan merged West Coast Helicopters with Helinet Aviation Services. His reputation as an aerial coordinator and stunt and production pilot for film and TV productions was growing, and the company was expanding into new missions, including helicopter air ambulance work and aircraft management.

With the birth of their children, Michaela and Kyle, Kathryn became less directly involved in the company. After Alan’s death, she didn’t initially plan to be an active owner of Helinet. There were all the other details that needed attention, and of course, her children. Besides, Alan had hired a management team three months before the accident.

Kathryn initially left it to that team to run the business. But without Alan to provide continuity, the company he had created was losing focus. He was a visionary, charismatic leader who could run a complex business out of his head. Replacing him as CEO seemed like an impossible task. 

“After he was gone, it wasn’t my original intent to come in,” says Kathryn. “But I saw that I needed to do that for Alan’s legacy to continue. He worked so hard for it. It was my commitment to Alan that I was going to keep this place alive. That’s why I came in, and that’s why I’m still here.”

Read More: Air Ambulances in a COVID-19 World
June 08, 2020

Air medical operators reset best practices and protective measures in the fight against an insidious pandemic.

In just a short time, the world has quickly become familiar with medical teams attired in full PPE (personal protective equipment) fighting to save lives in crowded hospitals. Helicopter air ambulance operators are also responding to the new normal of life during the Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, as they look to save lives on two fronts: their patients and their personnel.

An Initial Lull

When COVID-19 began to spread across the United States in late January 2020, air ambulance services experienced an initial deep drop in volume.

“One of the first things that happened is everything ground to a halt, which interestingly enough happened after 9/11, too,” says Tom Judge, executive director of LifeFlight of Maine, which operates three bases in the state. “The bottom dropped out for air medical, with a 50% decrease in volume—for both scene and interfacility transport.”

Jerry Splitt, Geisinger Medical Center’s program director, saw the same thing about his six bases across Pennsylvania. “Our volumes were consistent—and even on the increase. Then, suddenly a decrease. You know, they say the medical industry is recession-proof, but it’s not pandemic-proof. Reduced transports and procedures cut income.”

Although some of the decrease was attributed to the halting of elective procedures, another large contributing factor was stay-at-home orders issued by local governments. Fewer people on the roads and out being active leads to fewer trauma accidents requiring air transport.

Paul Schaaf, pilot for emergency medical services operator STAT MedEvac, experienced a decrease in pediatric transports for the same reasons. STAT MedEvac coordinates the operation of SkyBear, the rapid helicopter transport service of Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C.

“I’m attributing [the decrease] to the kids not being in school or preschool catching the flu and other respiratory issues we used to fly them for,” Schaaf says. “They’re also not out in the woods or doing other activities that cause accidents, like snakebites, broken bones, etc. Parents are keeping kids close right now.”

Oddly, a sudden reduction in heart attack and stroke patients occurred at the same time, something that was also experienced after 9/11. These patients picked up again about the time the number of serious COVID-19 patients needing transport began to take off.

“To be perfectly honest, I don’t know what causes this phenomenon,” says Rick Rohrbach, EMS Director at Cooper University Health Care in Camden, New Jersey, about the sudden reduction in stroke and heart attack victims. “Maybe it’s because they were suddenly sitting at home on the couch. But the decrease … only lasted a few weeks.”

Sure enough, a few weeks into the stay-at-home orders, the scene changed. Typical respiratory-, heart-, and stroke-­related transports began to increase right about when COVID-19 patient transports began in earnest.

“We’re back to comparable volumes now, with COVID patients making up the difference from reduced trauma accidents,” says Rohrbach.

 

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