| 2020 Quarter 2

The Magazine of Helicopter Association International

About This Issue
ROTOR Staff 2020 Q2

On the cover: Photographer Mark Bennett captured this S-76 C++ flying over the traffic on LA’s Interstate 405. The helicopter, piloted by Steve Gould (left) and copiloted by Adam Ferris, is part of Helinet’s aircraft management program, which currently oversees four aircraft.

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Helinet Flies Ahead
Gina Kvitkovich 2020 Q2

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.


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.”

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Air Ambulances in a COVID-19 World
Jen Boyer 2020 Q2

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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NFL Star Helps Kids Pursue Aviation Careers
Dan Reed 2020 Q2

Jimmy Graham: Chicago Bears tight end and instrument-rated pilot.

NFL tight end Jimmy Graham—newly signed to a lucrative free-agent contract by the Chicago Bears—didn’t get much attention or encouragement at home, growing up in what can best be described as a highly dysfunctional military family. Things got so bad that his mother effectively abandoned him as an 11-year-old when she placed him in a group home in Goldsboro, North Carolina, where the older and bigger boys beat him regularly.

So it makes sense now that, after his improbable rise to stardom and wealth in the NFL, Graham is committed to encouraging youngsters—especially those from similarly tough and impoverished backgrounds—to aim for futures that seemingly are beyond their reach.

What’s surprising, though, is that the 6-foot 7-inch, 270-lb All Pro pass-catching machine isn’t using his athletic prowess and fame to help kids excel in athletics. Rather, Graham depends on his personal Bell UH-1 Huey helicopter—plus his Extra 330 LX aerobatic plane (it’s a really tight fit) and his 1957 de Havilland Canada DHC-2 Beaver seaplane (with retractable skis)—to point kids toward potential careers in aviation.

Though he’d only been a licensed pilot for a little less than eight years at the time, Graham jumped at the chance in 2018 to follow in the footsteps of Gen. Chuck Yeager, Capt. Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, and actors Harrison Ford and Cliff Robertson as chairman of the Young Eagles. The organization, founded in 1992 by the US Experimental Aircraft Association, gives children ages 8 to 17 opportunities to experience flight in a general aviation aircraft and to learn about aviation. 

Because he can take only one kid at a time up with him in his Extra 330, and only two or three in his Beaver, Graham’s Young Eagles ride of choice is his Huey. The aircraft, along with his charitable organization, The Jimmy Graham Foundation, is based at Miami Executive Airport (KTMB), outside of Miami, Florida. 

The iconic model is fully restored to the way it looked when it flew with the US Army’s 170th Assault Helicopter Co. during 21 months from 1968 through 1969. The helicopter operated in the Vietnamese Central Highlands, ferry­ing soldiers into and out of battle zones. It also flew into and out of Cambodia and Laos in support of the 5th Special Forces Group. These days, the Huey mostly carries children via the Young Eagles program, along with Vietnam veterans taking brief trips down memory lane.

ROTOR: Given your challenged childhood and the huge amount of time you’ve committed to becoming a top athlete, how did you get so involved in flying?
Graham: The first movie I remember watching was Top Gun. My dream was to be a fighter pilot, but then I grew to a freakish six-seven and there went that dream. We lived around military bases—my original parents were in the military. I randomly loitered around airports, talking a lot about aviation and asking a lot of questions. I met a guy named John. He said if I ever wanted to go up [in an aircraft], he’d give me a ride. So I flew with him and loved it.

When did you get your pilot’s license?
I played basketball at the University of Miami for four years, then played one year of football there before being drafted by the New Orleans Saints. I’d never had the time or money to learn to fly. But after my first NFL season, I had some money and, for the first time, some [spare] time in the offseason, so I started lessons. I took my checkride before the end of that year. Except in years when I had off-season surgeries, I’ve learned new ways of flying or gotten new licenses every off-season since.

What licenses do you have?
Beyond my private pilot’s license, I’ve got my airplane single-engine sea and land, airplane multi-engine land, tailwheel, rotorcraft, instrument (airplane and helicopter), and commercial helicopter licenses. I’ll probably add my sea and land commercial license, and after I retire from football I want to move into gliders. I’ve kept this under wraps until now, but I’m also a licensed skydiver.

During the season, I may only have time to fly two or three days. But the rest of the year, I fly on average five days a week. I just love it; I love everything about flying.

Where does that passion and commitment come from?
To be honest, I don’t just half-ass anything. Whether it’s football, or athletics, or flying, or investing my money, I want to do it to the very best of my ability and keep learning more and more about it. I’m kinda’ weird that way, I guess. But even if I’m doing a charity event, I guarantee you … it’s going to be excellent.

Have your coaches or teams ever raised concerns about your flying?
They don’t want to go there with me. One time when I was with the Saints, [Head Coach] Sean Payton and [General Manager] Mickey Loomis, before I signed my big deal, actually mentioned that they didn’t want me to be in a private plane if it wasn’t a jet with two engines and had a copilot. I told them I wouldn’t sign that contract and that there were 31 other teams that would give me the same contract AND let me fly. No organization has ever mentioned it again.

How did you get involved in the Young Eagles?
A good friend of mine, Sean D. Tucker, flies airshows. He’s been doing it about 30 years solo. And this last year, he wanted to go to a two-plane operation. So I got involved with him with my aerobatic plane. He also got me involved with the Young Eagles program, and I quickly saw the benefits of their mission. [Editor’s note: Tucker followed Sullenberger as the Young Eagles’ chairman in 2013 and continues to serve as co-chair alongside Graham.]

You could champion any cause you wanted, or just spend all your time flying. Why get deeply involved in the Young Eagles?
I’m a gutter kid. I came from the gutter. I always tell kids that, as a boy, I had my PhD—poor, hungry, and driven. And that’s a gift.

I’m thankful for every hardship I had. It made me grow up fast and [gave me drive]. The Young Eagles program gives me a chance to talk to kids—especially kids from tough backgrounds like mine who probably never dreamed they could do something like this—and get them thinking about aviation as a career. It gives me a chance to motivate them and encourage them not to be held back by whatever negative circumstances they’ve had to deal with

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UAS Market Ready for a Breakout
Dan Reed 2020 Q2

The market for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS, or drones) grows bigger every year, as more companies, industries, and governments find ways to use these aircraft. Because drones can easily carry lightweight cameras and other sensing equipment, they’re already utilized for inspection, surveillance, or data-gathering missions. But plans are under way to carry cargo and people, too.

“It depends on what study you read, but the commercial drone industry and light military [drone] market in 2018—in the US alone—was $2.6 billion. And by 2025 it will grow to $16.2 billion,” says Cameron Chell, co-founder and CEO of Canadian firm Draganfly, the world’s first commercial drone manufacturer.
Some studies suggest a much higher number. But whatever the real figure, there’s no denying the UAS industry’s current growth and prospects for more of it, regardless of where the hype surrounding the technology stands.

“I wouldn’t say all the hype is gone, but it is much reduced,” says Kay Wackwitz, a consulting aeronautical engineer and CEO of research and consulting firm Drone Industry Insights, based in Hamburg, Germany.

Most of the excitement generated in recent years has been aimed at attracting investment dollars to the small army of drone start-ups—and to the big ride-sharing companies like Uber that are itching to begin operating “flying taxis.” But a number of start-ups have scaled back their dreams, and some have even shut down after having learned how hard the technical challenges are, how long the road is to full certification, and how much of an investment would be required to produce a certificated and affordable finished product.

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HAI Scholarship Recipient Sarah-Grace Blanton
Jaasmin Foote 2020 Q2

Funds give Marine Corps veteran a sense of security and hope.

With her aeronautical engineer father as a role model, Sarah-Grace Blanton knew since childhood that she wanted to work in aviation. But it wasn’t until she joined the US Marine Corps that the 2020 winner of HAI’s Commercial Helicopter Pilot Rating Scholarship was certain she wanted to be a pilot. While deployed overseas, the Kansas native met several pilots, an experience that ultimately led her to pick helicopters as her aircraft of choice. 

After leaving the military, however, Sarah-Grace encountered several roadblocks when she tried to use the GI Bill to obtain her pilot’s license and instrument rating. For one, she had to pay out of pocket for her license before receiving any GI benefits. Then, when she tried to use the funding for her instrument rating, she didn’t receive her first payment for more than eight months. She found help only after writing to Congress to request assistance but even then was reimbursed for only 60% of her training costs. 

She also had problems using her GI Bill benefits at the school where she originally enrolled in California. After she transferred to Precision Aviation Training in Newberg, Oregon, the process became much easier. 

She says her HAI scholarship was essential to continuing her pilot studies. “If I hadn’t won the scholarship, it would’ve been very hard for me to move to a different state and begin flight training somewhere new,” says Sarah-Grace, who obtained her commercial rating in March.  

The HAI scholarship has given her a sense of security and hope, she says. The funding, she explains, became a “safety blanket” that allowed her to concentrate on obtaining her commercial rating without the stress of accumulating more debt.

Sarah-Grace learned about HAI’s scholarship program from her mentor Dan Megna, a photographer for Vertical magazine whom she met at her former flight school. Megna still mentors Sarah-Grace, helping her network with other professionals and tracking her progress toward achieving her ultimate goal of becoming an air interdiction agent for US Customs and Border Protection. She also aspires to becoming a certificated flight instructor. 

In addition to Megna, Sarah-Grace cites as role models her Precision instructors Henry Sexsmith and Casey Campbell. “They’re always available to help me and give honest feedback,” she says. “They’ve taught me that hard work and not being afraid to ask questions will allow me to grow, as well as how to be a safe and efficient commercial pilot.”

Like so many in the rotorcraft industry, Sarah-Grace has found her training stymied by the COVID-19 pandemic. Although she completed her commercial checkride before a stay-at-home order took effect in Oregon, under the GI Bill she won’t be able to start CFI training and have her tuition paid until the order is lifted. But Sarah-Grace, who’s studying under an aviation science degree program developed by Klamath Community College in Klamath Falls, Oregon, in partnership with Precision Aviation, thinks things will work out.

Sarah-Grace frequently invokes her instructors’ lessons, especially the concept of a mental safety checklist, which she employs before every flight. “Every time I get ready for a flight, I ask myself, ‘Did I get enough sleep? How am I feeling? How’s my preflight?’ When I get in the cockpit, I think, ‘Fly with a purpose,’ because it keeps me focused so there’s no room for error.”

Her advice to other students is never give up. “Don’t be afraid of failure and bad flights,” she says. “Pick yourself back up, brush yourself off, and keep pushing toward your goal.”

She appreciates what the HAI scholarship has afforded her and would eagerly return the favor if she could. “If money weren’t an issue, I’d contribute to scholarships and anything that allows a pilot to build their passion for aviation,” she says. “Just how it was done for me.”

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Steve Dickson’s 30,000-Foot View
Gina Kvitkovich 2020 Q2

FAA Administrator Stephen M. Dickson attended 12 different schools as his family moved to posts across the United States and around the world for his father’s career as a US Air Force pilot. After graduating from the US Air Force Academy, Dickson, too, flew for the Air Force. He moved to Delta Air Lines in 1991 to work as a line pilot and also earned a law degree along the way. After various stints in Delta management, including as chief pilot and senior VP of flight operations, Dickson retired … for a brief minute before being asked by US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao to head the FAA. He was sworn in as the top US aviation official on Aug. 12, 2019.

ROTOR Editor Gina Kvitkovich sat down with Dickson in late January during his visit to HAI HELI-EXPO 2020 in Anaheim, California. This interview has been edited and condensed for publication.


ROTOR: What drew you to aviation and what made you stay?
Steve Dickson: It’s just a passion—it’s not like work to me. And aviation is something where you’re always learning and discovering new or better ways to do things.

Once I graduated from the academy, I wanted to fly and serve my country. That was another thing that was attractive about joining the FAA—it was a chance for things to come full circle and give something back to my country. I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of success in my business career; serving as FAA administrator was a chance for me to bring some of that perspective and be part of a team.

Do you still fly?
Not currently. I’ve got some other things I’m focused on right now, but I do plan to get qualified on the FAA’s aircraft. It’s always been important to me to lead by example.

One way the FAA is different from some other transportation authorities is that it has an operational mission. I think it’s important for the people at the FAA to see that their leader is out there with them and seeing the operation from the same perspective that they are.

I’m looking forward to rounding out my experience with GA [general aviation]. It actually has some similarities to military flying, where you’re kind of dispatching yourself, doing your own flight planning, and checking your own weather. With the pace of operations in a commercial airline environment, that’s all being done by the ops center.

What are your priorities as FAA administrator?
I came into the agency with a 90-day plan that I laid out on the first day for Secretary Chao, which of course falls closely in line with her overall transportation strategy. The agency is in the process of developing our five-year strategic plan, and I’ve got five strategy pillars.

The first and most important one, not surprisingly, is safety. And that’s safety as both a regulator and an operator of the airspace. We have to be able to do both.

The second pillar is global leadership. The United States has a responsibility to lead in safety and operations and in all aspects of commercial aviation around the world. In my observation, even before I arrived at the agency, when the FAA shows up somewhere, stakeholders really listen to what the FAA has to say. That’s not always true with other regulatory authorities, even fairly mature ones.

Over the years, the FAA has done more than any other regulatory authority to promote aviation safety around the world. But we do it through openness. With the United States being an open society and an open people in general, we’re very inclusive and collaborative by nature. Developing authorities around the world have really benefited from the mentoring and support the FAA has provided over the years, sometimes through ICAO [the International Civil Aviation Organization], other times through bilateral relationships, and other times through regional relationships. There’s an important mentoring role we can play.

The third pillar is operational excellence. This is really about operationalizing NextGen. We must make sure that we continue to invest in our infrastructure and do the needed physical modifications and modernization of the system—but we also need to make sure we’re getting operational benefits out of these investments.

The fourth pillar is innovation. This is where our approach to airspace integration is so important. Look at the commercial space sector. I had no idea, when I came into the agency, how involved the FAA is in licensing commercial space operations. We have 11 space ports around the country. A decade ago, we would have three or four commercial launches a year. This year, we’re close to 50 launches.

The FAA can’t continue to block off large swaths of airspace for these launches as we’ve done historically, so we’re developing technology to manage airspace more surgically, more dynamically. We’re developing systems so we can actually ingest the trajectory data and the predictive data off of the planned launches and reentries. Eventually, they’ll be displayed on the controller’s scopes so that we can manage operations much more dynamically.

This is really the most exciting period in aviation history, probably back to, I would say, the advent of the jet engine or maybe even the DC-3. That’s because of the innovation we see on the HAI HELI-EXPO show floor. You’re talking about fly-by-wire helicopters, developments with synthetic vision, and the rule-making we’re having to do around UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] and commercial space to enable all of these different capabilities to operate in the same airspace. It’s extremely exciting.

The final strategy pillar is about people. When it comes to recruiting and training, there’s an internal aspect to it in terms of staffing the FAA, but there’s an industry side to it as well. We need to mentor young people to understand the opportunities that exist in our industry, not only within the agency but also in the private sector.

Actually, I just reviewed the candidates who had applied to be on the Women in Aviation advisory board that was mandated in the 2018 FAA reauthorization bill. We had about 200 submittals for 20 slots. There are many accomplished people and stakeholders who have applied, but we need to get some diversification in terms of age and experience, because there may be some knowledge about the best way to reach young people that somebody my age might not pick up on.

The FAA will also convene different stakeholder groups and see where the opportunities are to promote aviation. There are a lot of good things happening around the industry, but they’re kind of piecemeal and fragmented. I think there’s a way we can coordinate our efforts effectively.

There are so many different ways into aviation now that didn’t exist years ago. A lot of what we need to do is get the message out about these opportunities to groups who may not be familiar with aviation. For many people, if they’ve never had a connection to aviation or no one in their family has been in aviation, they just aren’t aware of it.

As far as my strategy for the FAA workforce goes, the agency has to work to more systematically allow our people to have satisfying careers and ensure they have a broad perspective of the entire agency. My experience in large technical organizations like an airline or the military is that people who have subject-matter expertise in a particular technical discipline tend to want to matriculate and be promoted within that discipline. But if they haven’t had any exposure to the rest of the business or the rest of the enterprise, it can be challenging to find your best leaders.

The best engineer or the best mechanic or the best pilot may not actually be the best leader for the organization. 

We’ve got to systematically give folks the support and programs to be able to broaden as they’re promoted throughout their careers. We’re going to be doing some things internally, as well, to make our employee development more robust, so that we’re not just looking within our own technical disciplines for leaders.

Where are the opportunities to improve GA safety? 
That’s something I’m looking forward to working on with Jim [Viola, HAI president and CEO,] because I know he’s got a lot of experience in that area. [Viola was head of GA safety assurance for the FAA before he moved to HAI.]

I think the opportunity with GA safety is to continue to drill down on data. How do we develop a system that’s going to allow us to make the same kind of significant improvements we’ve seen in commercial airline travel?

It will require using the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee and the US Helicopter Safety Team and putting the same types of resources, focus, and attention on GA safety. Our vision is that no accident is acceptable. We don’t want anybody to ever get hurt or killed on an aircraft.

There’s always going to be operational pressure, because aviators tend to be very mission-oriented and -driven. Pilots are driven by a checklist, mechanics are driven by work cards—they want to get the task done. Well, sometimes you have to sit back and say, “OK; let’s set the parking brake,” or, “Let’s land and live.”

Let’s do whatever we need to do to say, “This is probably not a good idea. Let’s stop the operation, let’s let the weather pass, let’s talk about our game plan,” and then move forward from there.

We’ve got to be able to bring people together to have those kinds of conversations, but those conversations have to be rooted in data. We just need to figure out how to adapt the information we have to the GA environment so we can understand each other’s perspectives.

So the FAA will continue to focus on data as a key method of improving safety?
Another element of my innovation strategy is the digital transformation of the FAA so that we’re able to ingest and utilize data more effectively. We have a lot of data, but it’s compartmentalized and not easily combined and reshaped for different purposes.

Let’s look at the historical continuum of how the aviation industry has dealt with safety issues. The following example is focused on commercial airline operations, but I think it’s instructive. 

When you think about commercial aviation safety up until probably the 1970s or 1980s, it was really the blame game. It was always pilot error or the engine caught fire or the weather was bad. You didn’t have the data to go in and look at root causes.

Then we moved toward more disciplined, post-accident investigations, where it was more of a forensic approach. It’s the way we investigate accidents now, where you go in and you really look at all aspects—the human factors, the machine, the operating environment, the training records, and whatever else. So we moved from the blame game to forensics.

Then we moved from forensics to a proactive approach, and that’s where we are now. We have voluntary safety reporting programs, and we have data from flight-data monitoring and flight operational quality assurance that’s streaming off of engines and airplanes. We have other types of employee reporting and agency audits.

Then you have a team sift and filter that data to figure out what’s important, what the threats are, and what changes need to be made. This approach does allow you to be more proactive, but it’s an analog process.

We’re moving to a world where the data sources talk to each other. Maybe you’re online looking at a new TV, and then later these pop-up ads for TVs show up. These commercial companies know a lot about you by analyzing the data they’ve collected about you.

But we don’t have the same kind of visibility into a pilot. For example, when you look at a pilot who’s being put into the operation that day, what is their readiness level for that day? We need to look at their schedule, their qualification, their checkrides. That’s the people data. Then there’s the data on the machine. Then what about the operating environment? What’s the mission, what’s the tempo, what’s the weather?

This information comes from very different data sources. But imagine if we could bring that in and combine it with some machine learning or artificial intelligence. So the question isn’t just, “Do I want that pilot?” It’s, “Do I want to pair a captain with less than 100 hours with a new-hire first officer flying their first ride into Midway, a place with high-tempo operations where the shorter runway can be challenging?” 

That’s where you start to get into predictive analysis, where you look at the data to make a better-informed decision rather than reacting after the fact. You might say, “This mission meets the rules, but is that really a risk that we want to take on?” So you change the experience levels of the crew pairing, or you substitute a different equipment type, or you wait for the weather to clear, or you do whatever you can to reduce the risk. That’s what I’m pushing forward to.

Right now, there are a lot of data-driven processes within the FAA, but I want to bring all of that together into a common data lake. We can then use and manipulate that data for different purposes. For example, an aviation safety inspector’s personnel information is segregated from their training qualifications, even though it’s the same person. I want to bring all that together, because I may want to query it for different purposes. And that’s just one example.

You have to be able to translate the data into some kind of actionable information. And that’s the challenge.

What progress is being made on integrating UAS, or drones, into the National Airspace System?
The FAA has an excellent leader in Jay Merkle, who came from our Air Traffic Organization and is now overseeing our UAS integration team. He’s doing a good job of engaging stakeholders and bringing together the different lines of business within the FAA.

It’s a tall order to actually integrate UAS operations into the airspace system, but I think it’s the right strategy. Some stakeholders would rather see us establish certain routes or restrictions on UAS, but I think that would severely hamper the development of a technology that will be very beneficial to society. 

But we’ve got to manage the integration through a logical process. So we’ve tried to use our existing regulatory structure to do that. The challenge has been to create a pilot program in which we can test certain business opportunities in certain applications so that when we actually do write the rules, we write them in the most beneficial way to be able to continue that development.

Right now, it’s hard to say what things are going to look like five years from now. Every time you think you’ve got a good idea of what the trajectory is going to be, there are new innovations out there and new opportunities. We want to be supportive, and we don’t want to cut off any of that innovation. At the same time, we have to get some things out there first, like remote ID, so we can have a broader scale beyond visual-line-of-sight operations and operations over people.

Not everyone agrees on how we’re approaching UAS integration. We’ve got to make sure we understand their perspectives, but they’ve got to understand that the FAA oversees a system. We can’t favor one part of the country or one constituency over another. There will have to be some compromises and some trade-offs.

There are entities, such as cities, communities, and our security or law enforcement partners, that have certain interests that we have to account for when we write rules. And we have certain societal considerations, like noise, privacy, and data, that we’ve got to consider when we make rules, even as the safety regulator.

Our tremendously diverse and dynamic NAS makes it more challenging to do that. In some places, there isn’t as much GA activity. But in the United States, we have a diverse, robust GA sector with lots of different types of operations and a large helicopter sector. These opportunities create a lot of complexity that has to be managed.

But that’s something to be cherished. It makes the US aviation system much more diverse and complicated than anywhere else in the world. That’s one reason I think the FAA is still, by a large margin, the leading aviation authority in the world, because it has to bring together all these disparate elements, and that’s exciting.

Getting back to the subject of UAS integration, it goes back to fundamental questions, such as who’s responsible for the US airspace. Well, the answer depends on what you’re talking about. If you’re talking about civil airspace, it’s the FAA. If you’re talking about defense, it’s NORAD [the North American Aerospace Defense Command, a joint US–Canadian organization that conducts aerospace warning, aerospace control, and maritime warning in the defense of North America] and USNORTHCOM [the US Northern Command, the US Department of Defense command dedicated to homeland defense].

The Department of Defense is an airspace user as well. The ADS-B mandate was a good example of that. We had to create some opportunities for the military to be able to operate in a way that civil aircraft wouldn’t be able to within the system—a military aircraft doesn’t always want to broadcast its location. We certainly have to take DOD’s needs into consideration when we write rules.

From the FAA’s perspective, how did the ADS-B Out equipage mandate go?
Thanks to a lot of work and a lot of preparation on the part of all segments of the industry, I think it’s been going well. The compliance has been probably as we expected. There have been a few little surprises here and there with some operators, mostly foreign operators, that we’re dealing with.

As you get into any situation where you’ve got different aircraft avionics configurations, there have been some difficulties because there’s not just the ADS-B transponder, there are also multimode receivers and other things that are part of the architecture. 

There were difficulties with some manufacturers that showed up within the past year that are going to have to be remediated. But it’s a relatively small number of operators who were dealing with that.

Any surprises about the job of being FAA administrator?
Nothing happens as fast as you want it to happen. That’s certainly one observation. 

I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the people whom I have the privilege of working with in the agency, and that’s something that I appreciate every day. I love being part of a team that’s trying every day to make a difference and improve a system that already operates at an extremely high level. 

Finally, I get to learn more about different segments of the industry, some of which I was more familiar with than others. It’s been a great experience so far.

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Learning to Survive a Helicopter Ditching
ROTOR Staff 2020 Q2

Ditching a helicopter in water isn’t an ideal way to end a flight, but as with everything flight related, training for such an eventuality improves your ability to, if not walk, at least dog-paddle away as safely as possible.

Depending on the environment, flight regime, equipment, skill, and luck, a water landing might mirror a ground landing and result in the aircraft resting comfortably upright on floats in placid water. Then again, elements of the environment, regime, equipage, skill, or luck might fail and you could find yourself in an inverted aircraft sinking in dark, stormy seas. Your fate might then rest entirely in your own hands—a destiny much more in your control if you’ve trained for that possibility beforehand.

I’ve recently flown several missions over the Gulf of Mexico. Even though I was wearing a life jacket and the aircraft had floats, when you fly over miles and miles of water, you do wonder how you would fare in a ditching incident.

With those experiences in mind, I audited “Aviation Survival and Egress Training with Emergency Breathing Devices,” a course teaching the skills needed to survive a helicopter ditching. The class, provided by Survival Systems USA of Groton, Connecticut, as part of HAI’s professional education program at HAI HELI-EXPO 2020, was a packed day that included both classroom lecture and in-pool practice.

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