FAA Weather Camera System for Helicopter Medevac Operators
By Jim Tise, FAA Office of Communications
As the popularity and success of the weather camera program grows, the FAA is now looking to expand its use among commercial operators, and in the process, possibly save lives. The FAA is loaning weather cameras to helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operators flying out of three hospitals: one each in Grenada and Jackson, Miss., and the other in Ann Arbor, Mich.
This year, the agency will collect data to ascertain the uses and benefits of the images to the air ambulance and aviation industry, especially in locations where the nearest automated surface observing system (ASOS) is located miles away from the heliport or airport.
This demonstration could help enable better-informed flight operations and efficiencies at air ambulance heliports and airports throughout the country where ASOS does not exist. That could mean fewer flight cancellations due to weather, and the lives of more people in need of emergency transportation could well be saved.
Until recently, the FAA has worked exclusively with state governments to install weather cameras and integrate images onto the website in areas where pilots — generally of fixed-wing aircraft — can face hazardous flying conditions. Colorado, Alaska, and Hawaii already have agreements with the FAA, with Montana being the latest state to participate in a demonstration project. The weather camera program shares the design and technology for operating the cameras with states that install, own, and maintain the camera systems under cost-reimbursable agreements.
Fixed-wing medical flights and HAA flights are allowed to operate only if adequate weather data is available to help pilots make an informed go/no-go decision. The difference is that fixed-wing flights are conducted from airports, which more frequently have a weather reporting station. ASOS often provides the weather data that HAA flights use, but its accuracy varies from location to location.
Two employees with the FAA’s Flight Standards office, Laennec Ratard and Wayne Fry, helped lead the effort to get the weather cameras installed at the three hospital locations.
Ratard is a principal operations inspector working out of the Baton Rouge (La.) Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), where he oversees Metro Aviation, a helicopter air ambulance company. Metro Aviation operates 30 to 45 flights a month out of Ann Arbor, with anywhere from two to five flights canceled because of inadequate or misleading weather reporting data.
“That hospital does not have its own weather reporting,” explained Ratard. It instead relies on an ASOS that sits in a valley about five miles south of the hospital that Ratard believes leads to unnecessary flight cancellations.
The issues down south were even more pronounced. “In rural Mississippi, the alternative to a 45-minute helicopter medevac flight could be a 5-hour ambulance ride,” noted Wayne Fry, manager of the General Aviation Division in the FAA’s General Aviation Safety Assurance office.
“We’re out there to serve these communities in their time of need,” said Mike LaMee, director of operations for Med-Trans Corp., the air ambulance company that operates out of Jackson and Grenada. He estimates that 35 percent of his company’s medevac requests are canceled because weather data indicates it’s not safe to fly.
The camera installations at all three hospitals are now operational. LaMee remarked upon the ease with which the collaborative effort came together.
“What I see today are regulators working with industry in a very meaningful way to enhance safety,” LaMee said. Fry is thinking long-term with the weather camera demos. “Our hope is that the pilots and operators will come to understand what a boost they are and go out and purchase some of their own,” said Fry.
LaMee noted that there are cutting-edge weather observation systems being produced that offer additional information such as cloud ceilings, visibility, and air pressure. “If we can improve availability and reliability of weather reporting, it’s going to absolutely revolutionize what we’re able to do as helicopter air ambulance operators,” he said.
Jim Tise is an editor with the FAA’s Office of Communications.