In recent decades, the regulatory framework of civil aviation has not only been standardised by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), but also tightened up at both national and European levels. All this was for good reason, since the primary aim was to establish a common understanding of safety. It is therefore difficult to comprehend why existing rules should now be softened for the first time.
But what is it about? Since 2014, European directives have stipulated twin-engine helicopters for air rescue missions. Today, however, EASA has a completely different intention. Guidelines that have been binding until now should no longer be applied in the future – but this contradicts the premise that every helicopter should be ‘engined’, depending on its assignment. And helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) missions are different. These operations include off-airfield landings, hoist operations and flights over congested and hostile environments, with patients that have no choice regarding the operational safety level – neither have people living next to or working at hospitals. And as the mindset of HEMS operators is safety first for crews, passengers and non-affected third parties, the exclusive use of CAT-A helicopters for aeromedical operations remains without alternative.
On one hand, this principle has been understood for more than 25 years by the industry and served all stakeholders – including aviation authorities and our community – very well. While in the past, some CAT-A helicopters had performance problems at high altitudes, the modern CAT-A helicopters fulfil performance requirements without any problems. However, the risk assessment of HEMS operations has not changed. If safety is not to be diluted, there is no comprehensible risk-based justification for approving single-engine helicopters for high-altitude HEMS operations.
However, there are no statistics regarding the European HEMS-community showing any increased demand for such missions that could not, in principle, be covered by the existing fleet of HEMS CAT-A helicopters. Of course, exceptions confirm the rule. For example, prevailing weather and wind conditions could have a negative impact on a rescue mission from the north face of the Matterhorn. In total, there are only a handful of operations per year that could require the use of a single-engine helicopter. But also in these cases, the combination of a single-engine aircraft for the rescue, with a twin-engine helicopter for transportation, will be the safest and best solution. And, to be honest, these few cases in no way justify a return to a long outdated status. Also important in this context are the high investment costs taken by all operators to achieve a legally compliant status. It cannot be the intention of EASA to punish those who have done their homework well.
In total, there are only a handful of operations per year that could require the use of a single-engine helicopter
On behalf of the European HEMS and Air Ambulance Committee (EHAC), spokesperson Ralph Schüller claims that the use of single-engine helicopters should be the exception, not the rule, in the future. This does not affect support flights in connection with HEMS operations, such as the transport of search teams or equipment, which have been – and will continue to be – carried out by CAT companies. Therefore, no company will be in a worse position than before.
EHAC calls on EASA and politicians to maintain the proven regulatory performance specifications and safety standards for HEMS operations, as already stated in JAR-OPS 3. Regarding ground-based rescue service, there is no discussion about softening the existing minimum requirements.
Honestly, why should there be a need to adapt a proven and successfully running system concerning air rescue services? A purely profit-focused maximisation, driven by a few companies at the detriment of flight safety – as is known from the US – must be rejected to avoid not only accidents, but also negative market distortions.
This has to also remain the case for HEMS operations for the population, the patients and the crews.