Helicopter operators warned to take extra precautions around airports 

Avatar for Aaron KarpBy Aaron Karp | October 6, 2022

Estimated reading time 4 minutes, seconds.

In September, an Aeromexico Embraer E190 regional jet was rolling down the runway at the Mexico City International Airport when the pilots abandoned take-off because a formation of helicopters was flying over the end of the runway.

Helicopters are heavy users of airports, but are given more operational flexibility by air traffic controllers than fixed-wing aircraft. This means helicopter pilots need to have clear situational awareness in an airport environment to avoid compromising the safety of airplanes moving around taxiways and runways.

Speaking at the 2022 Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST) conference in Hurst, Texas, on Oct. 5, Phil Jennings, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot and currently a pilot for the Milwaukee Regional Medical Center consortium, said there is a “perception that airplanes and helicopters are always operating in a controlled airport environment even when they’re not.”

He added this can become “really problematic” if helicopter pilots do not take precautions when operating around airports.

“There is no technological solution,” Jennings said. “This still is likely to continue to be very much an eyes out, head on a swivel sort of thing” for helicopter pilots operating at airports. “Caution must be exhibited when active runways are involved.”

Jennings said airplanes are given specific directions by air traffic controllers for taxiing, taking off and landing. Airplane pilots must have a detailed flight plan, established in concert with air traffic control (ATC), before take-off.

“I don’t think that helicopter pilots typically do that even though helicopter pilots are [often] operating [at airports] in an air taxi mode where they’re going to fly right over the surface area of the airport,” Jennings said. “Helicopters have a less explicit mandate that is essentially to avoid the flow of fixed-wing traffic.”

But this mandate from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) does not mean helicopter pilots have free rein at airports.

“When you break it down, avoiding the flow has very specific implications, which are a little bit more nuanced than it might otherwise seem,” especially from a legal standpoint, Jennings, who is also a lawyer, said.

Helicopters based at airports must actively communicate with ATC and other operators, Jennings said.

“I think helicopter pilots have the obligation to be very proactive about communicating what their plan is,” he explained. “Special precautions must be taken for airports that have complex arrangements.”

For example, the FAA has designated safety hotspots at airports, usually on runways, where airline pilots are warned to take extra care. Helicopter pilots should be aware of these hotspots and “other indications of a certain risk,” Jennings said. “Awareness is important.”

He noted that ATC “makes a really concerted effort to ensure that helicopters can depart and land [at airports] whenever possible. So, that requires a certain awareness by the helicopter pilot of what’s going on in the airport environment.”

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