Rotorcraft technology is advancing faster than regulations can be rewritten to account for new capabilities, like safely flying single-engine aircraft in foul weather or soon, traveling through major urban centers in a semi-autonomous electric aircraft.
For helicopter pilots and operators, safety is the top priority, and technology could significantly increase the usefulness of current aircraft if regulations could catch up, according to Matthew Zuccaro, president and CEO of Helicopter Association International.
HAI categorizes all of its initiatives into three buckets: Safety First, Economic Viability and Operational Efficiency. A major tech-based push that impacts all three is establishing efficient certification guidelines for flying single-engine rotorcraft in instrument flight rules (IFR) mode in bad weather, Zuccarro told R&WI in a recent interview at the association headquarters outside of Washington, D.C.
“We are big believers in operating IFR whenever we possibly can, because of the built-in protection it provides in terms of simple things like terrain avoidance and clearance, reliability and dependability of mission completion,” Zuccaro said. “It gives you the protected environment of being under surveillance and direction of air traffic control.”
A change in FAA policy made in 1999 imposing stricter reliability requirements made it prohibitive to certify single-engine helicopters to fly IFR and, as a result, no single-engine rotorcraft been certified in decades to fly IFR. Consider that third-party authorization of IFR approach and departure from an average heliport can run $30,000. Installing an Automated Weather Observing System that meets FAA standards can cost $100,000 or more — and both require an annual maintenance fee. All to IFR certify a single engine helicopter that costs maybe $300,000.
For their part, helicopter industry officials have sought to facilitate FAA certification of single-engine rotorcraft for IFR. The Vertical Flight Society has said that "there is broad consensus throughout the rotorcraft industry and operational community that equipage and training for IFR operations in single-engine helicopters has the potential to make a significant impact on safety."
VFS director Mike Hirschberg says the lack of IFR certification has resulted in hundreds of pilot fatalities while pilots are trying to “scud run” around or through bad weather.
“Modern technologies should have rectified this but the FAA has been very slow to take advantage of technology improvements,” Hirschberg wrote in an email. “The updated rules in 2017 should have cleared the way to allow this but the agency is still dragging its heels in approving IFR cases.”
The National EMS Pilots Association (NEMSPA) and U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) are trying to drive the issue home with the FAA directly. Both organizations recently gathered input from helicopter pilots who hold instrument ratings to "obtain information and insight on helicopter IFR issues and limitations facing today's helicopter pilots.”
That survey was presented on Feb. 7 to the USHST Infrastructure Summit in Washington, D.C. and will be made available to the FAA.
Paul Schaaf, an EC145 pilot with NameSTAT MedEvac who also works with VFS on the certification of IFR, says digital autopilots, GPS systems, infrastructure, weather reporting and flight planning tools have progressed to the point where IFR is perfectly safe and economically viable in single-engine rotorcraft.
“Datalinks into the cockpit allow pilots to make better decisions,” Schaaf said. “We now have many more options in terms of flight instrument approaches and departure than we used to. The flight planning tools we have at our fingers, it used to be an onerous process planning out and filing an IFR flight plan and now, it takes a minute to anywhere. A lot of these problems caused people, back in the ‘90s [to think] that it’s not practical to fly helicopters IFR, so why bother going through the process? But now, that’s very different.”
It was determined to be more economical to IFR-certify twin-engine aircraft because the difference in price between them can double from $3 million to $6 million or so, Schaaf said. If a company or individual is going to spend that kind of cash on a twin-engine aircraft, it’s best not to be grounded by a foggy day. Twin-engine helicopters also have more built-in redundancy, like multiple sources of electrical power; in a single-engine aircraft, the engine charges a battery that serves a power reserve in the case of a loss of electrical power.
But single-engine aircraft regularly fly IFR relying on battery power as a backup. Current FAA policies are hampering helicopter IFR certification specifically, Schaaf said.
“It’s a legacy process that is not taking into account realistic analysis of failure modes and the result of them,” he added. “Basically, the FAA is saying certain things, when they fail in a helicopter, they are going to be catastrophic. That is, in fact, not the case and that’s one of the problems.”
The Navy’s program to replace its aging TH-57 Sea Ranger training helicopters with an IFR-certified aircraft could be the toehold advocates of single-engine instrument flight are hoping will hasten changes in FAA policy, Schaaf said in a recent interview. Airbus is offering the twin-engine H135, but both Bell’s 407GXi and the Leonardo Helicopters TH119 are single-engine designs and must be IFR certified on delivery according to Navy requirements. So, after a decades-long drought in single-engine IFR certifications, two are about to land on the market whether the Navy buys them or not.
Though these aircraft likely will be certified under a different FAA regulatory process, some of the reforms needed for greenlighting IFR flight will open the door to the electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) revolution. It doesn’t make much sense to field a fleet of expensive air taxis in major metropolitan areas if they can only fly on sunny says, Schaaf said.
“You’re not going to have these machines unless they have the ability to fly through instrument meteorological conditions, otherwise it’s probably not going to work,” he said. “Maybe the first prototype will be limited to VFC. But for it to get any traction, it’s got to be flyable in most weather conditions.”
Back in the 1970s, when Zuccaro was flying Aerospatiale Gazelles — the first IFR certified single-engine helicopter — for the Port Authorities of New York and New Jersey, he routinely flew relying on instruments. But since then the expense of certifying single-engine IFR aircraft has become prohibitive and many pilots don’t bother staying proficient at flying in the mode.
“We’re not reinventing the wheel here,” he said. “This is stuff that was done in the ‘70s. What we’re trying to do is work forward and get the regulations and the process caught up with the latest technology that’s available.”
“We’ve all experienced, in the industry, flying along when the weather is deteriorating,” Zuccaro added. “At that point, if you have that flexibility for transparent transition from [visual flight rules] to IFR anytime you want, that is entirely different operation … than it is if you’re a VFR-only operation and have to wrestle with the weather.”
Technologies like super-precise GPS equipment, weather reporting and flight planning tools have become lighter and more affordable. Operators are installing health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS) that constantly and automatically monitor the engine and aircraft for failures and maintenance needs. All of these advancements should allow for single pilot/single engine IFR to become acceptable in the helicopter community as it is in the fixed wing world, Zuccaro said.
“We need to warp forward to the new technology because it’s lighter, the capabilities of it are tenfold what they were back then and there should be consideration for these major advancements in both the ground systems and the aeronautical systems on the aircraft and allow a cost-effective methodology to certify these aircraft and make them available to the operating community,” he said.
The proliferation of digital glass cockpits, terrain avoidance systems and other widely accepted technological improvements should allow for safe single-engine IFR flight and help combat problems — often fatal — that occur when pilots hit bad weather and must rely on instruments.
“One of the biggest issues we have, on the accident side, is inadvertent IMC and loss of control,” said Chris Martino, HAI’s vice president of operations. “A lot of pilots learn to fly IFR and become qualified when initially training to become a pilot, but it is difficult to maintain that proficiency because not many aircraft flying are IFR certified.”
During his 30-year stint in the Coast Guard, Martino said going into instrument meteorological condition (IMC) — read “bad weather” — where IFR is a must was “absolutely a nothing sandwich.”
“In this industry it’s difficult to do that because they don’t have the certified equipment,” Martino said. “In general, some of the current single-engine aircraft, without any modification at all, they can do solid IMC work.”
In the 1980s, Schaaf used to routinely fly Bell 206s in IFR mode without even the benefit of GPS and “did it safely, all the time.” In 1999, he tried to get his company’s Bell 407s IFR certified but was blocked by the FAA policy.
“Ever since about 1999, it’s been impossible to do this and, we used to do it completely safely with analogue autopilots and cockpits that didn’t even have GPS,” he said. “Now we have digital autopilots and GPS and just amazing situational awareness…And even with all this new technology, there still isn’t a way and it’s just preposterous.”