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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking a number of steps to improve the accuracy and comprehensiveness of its heliport database, but has only a limited ability to gather information on private operators, the organization has told Vertical 911.
Concerns have been raised over the information in the database, which depends on information supplied by the heliport facility owner. At first, an interested party notifies the FAA of their intention to build a heliport (or an airport) through the administration’s Form 7480-1. After the facility is complete, they file form 5010, which is used by the National Flight Data Center (NFDC) to create an Airport Master Record. Form 5010 can accommodate data for either an airport or a heliport, including its name, location and status. This information is used across the industry for a variety of purposes.
According to Helicopter Association International (HAI) president Matt Zuccaro, however, some of the information in databases like the FAA’s is inaccurate. Congress’s FAA Reauthorization Act of 2018 has required the FAA to assess the availability of information to the general public related to the location of heliports and helipads used by air ambulance helicopters, while the House Appropriations Committee recently directed 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.”
A spokesperson for the FAA told Vertical 911 the organization is planning to send surveys to every heliport listed in its database and to the owners and managers listed on each Airport Master Record in an effort to gather more accurate information and update the database where appropriate. To address the House Appropriation Committee’s air ambulance requirements, the FAA’s Office of Airports added a relevant new field to the 7480 form.
Misinformation could be detrimental to the safety of the National Airspace System, the spokesperson said, imploring “users of the applications available to submit inquiries to the FAA regarding potential sites deemed a hazard to flight or inactive.” However, the spokesperson cautioned that there is no regulatory requirement to report on private heliports, which represent the vast majority of facilities. While the FAA is working to improve the location accuracies of each site, “the FAA has no authoritative jurisdiction to request reporting or implement changes without the permission/agreement of the listed owner or manager on record.”
Improving the database has been a major focus for the U.S. Helicopter Safety Team (USHST) in its work with the FAA, said Rex Alexander, who has led many of those efforts. Alexander is president and executive director of the Five-Alpha consultancy, and also works with LZControl, a private company that provides similar information to that contained on the FAA’s heliport database.
In an interview with Vertical 911, Alexander outlined a range of problems with the current system. For example, the 5010 form is very airport-centric, he said, and does not capture heliport-specific information, such as the approach/departure paths for a heliport. Among other issues, it does not say whether a heliport is a ground-based pad or a rooftop pad or provide for information on the maximum gross weight of rooftop helicopters, Alexander said.
The UHSHT has conducted various types of research into the database. It found that there are 44 hospitals with helipads in the state of Ohio that are not in the system today, because the relevant paperwork was not submitted or finalized or for another reason, Alexander said. He thinks the system to register helipads and heliports with the FAA should be simplified, which would in turn help reduce the administration’s backlog.
A comprehensive and fully accurate heliport database is particularly important given the continuing rise of the drone industry, he pointed out. If a drone pilot were flying in the vicinity of a heliport or airport or similar facility, they would be required to notify the latter of their activities. However, if those heliports are not included in the 5010 database, or if they are listed at an inaccurate location, the drone operator would simply not know they exist, Alexander said.
“If an operator has a system that’s out doing photography work, for example, he or she is required to notify any airports or heliports in the vicinity. And since it’s not in a database, they won’t know about it.”
This problem will only grow more pronounced as the drone industry advances towards beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations.
“If you’re flying a drone from Point A to Point B beyond line of sight, and if you don’t know about a landing or take off site on that route, then how would you avoid it?” Alexander asked. “This will be interesting over the next 10 years with the push for autonomous delivery vehicles.”
Another concern centers on the impact of a natural disaster, when government organizations require accurate information on hospital helipads and heliports. There is a danger that individuals would have no idea where such facilities exist, or even the relevant radio frequencies or telephone numbers for communications.
“It’s a case of ‘let’s show up and hope,'” he said.
Finally, while heliports are a major issue, Alexander said the problem also extends to airports. UHSHT identified 128 airports listed in the database in Ohio (from small grass strips on farms to tiny, municipal airstrips) that are not in the specified locations.
In a statement, Zuccaro said that as a general concept, HAI supports any initiative aimed at updating the existing FAA heliport database.
“By improving the accuracy of the database, the FAA are providing pilots and operators [with] 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.”