Vertical lift infrastructure and 5G: A data integrity failure for the ages

Avatar for Rex AlexanderBy Rex Alexander | February 4, 2022

Estimated reading time 13 minutes, 26 seconds.

As experts continue to try to understand the safety impacts that 5G may have on its surrounding airspace, companies in the advanced air mobility (AAM) industry working to advance future eVTOL operations can learn some lessons from the current situation with existing vertical lift infrastructure. Rex Alexander shares his insight on how future vertiport infrastructure and AAM operations could be impacted.

Federal regulations, policies, and procedures governing data integrity, accountability, and accuracy standards surrounding vertical lift infrastructure in the United States are a critical element that many in government have paid little, if any, attention to over the years. This has been especially evident in recent months in determining what impact 5G may or may not have on this industry’s current and future infrastructure and flight operations.

eVTOL Infrastructure Humphreys
No matter how unsafe a private-use heliport may be, the FAA has no authority over it when it comes to meeting any federal safety standards, including protecting these private-use heliports — and future vertiports — from any safety impact that 5G may have on them. Humphreys/Uber Elevate Image

While we know exactly how many large public-use airports there are in the U.S. and exactly where those assets are located, primarily because it’s required by federal regulation, the same cannot be said for heliports. 

One of the primary reasons for this is due to the lack of oversight the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been authorized to exercise over private-use facilities by Congress. As of today, according to the FAA’s own Airport Data and Information Portal (ADIP) website, there are a total of 6,037 heliports in the U.S. and its territories. Out of that number, 55 are identified as public-use, and 5,982 identified as private-use. Additionally, only three public-use heliports have ever used federal grant monies from the Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which means that the FAA only has full oversight authority over three heliports in the U.S. This is primarily due to the fact that Congress has never given the FAA oversight authority over that segment of aviation that is classified as private-use. 

While almost all helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operators, other than those run by public services such as law enforcement, conduct Part 135 commercial operations for remuneration to transport critically ill and injured patients, all but five medical-use heliports are in fact categorized as private-use, for which the FAA has no jurisdiction or enforcement authority. Therefore, no matter how bad or unsafe a private-use heliport may be, the FAA has no authority over it when it comes to meeting any federal safety standards. This includes protecting these private-use heliports from any safety impact that 5G may have on them and their attaching airspace. It’s not that FAA does not want to help — its hands are literally tied and it is unable to help.

When it comes to hospital heliports specifically, an accountability issue exists within the FAA airport master record in that it does not actually classify heliports as hospital heliports, rather they are classified as medical-use. As of today, according to the FAA’s own ADIP system, there are 2,675 medical-use heliports in existence in the U.S. However, no one knows exactly how many hospital heliports this number may or may not actually represent. In 2020, according to the American Hospital Association (AHA), there were a total of 6,146 hospitals. Having worked in the HAA industry for some 20 years myself, it has been my experience that almost every hospital has some kind of helicopter landing site. This would equate to a potential deficit of 3,471 unaccounted heliports. NASA ASRS Report No: 1599969, published Jan. 31, 2019, first brought this discrepancy to light when it estimated there were “upwards of 2,000 hospital heliports that may be unaccounted for in the U.S.” 

Interestingly enough, U.S. Code Title 49 §329(b) empowers and directs the Secretary of Transportation to collect and disseminate information on civil aeronautics. In addition, Section 47130 of the U.S. Code Title 49, Subtitle VII, Part B, Chapter 471 indicates that the administrator of the FAA is responsible for the collection of airport safety data. While it could be argued that this nation’s healthcare facilities are a critical element of our infrastructure, and hospital heliports represent aviation infrastructure as defined by the federal government under the terminology of airports, their safety data should be accurately accounted for. However, since these assets are classified as private-use, those efforts have fallen far short of expectations.

In speaking with Jonathan Godfrey and John Cornett of LZControl, an independent third-party air ambulance infrastructure database provider, Godfrey says, “LZControl, unlike other online programs, does not pull its information from the FAA’s airport master record database, rather it uses an independent online crowdsourced landing zone database specifically designed to track heliports worldwide in a real-time platform.” 

Additionally, according to Godfrey, “LZControl is a key tool utilized by hundreds of HAA providers throughout the U.S. for which we track information of some 4,009 hospital heliports.” 

John Cornet went on to say, “Of significant importance to the 5G discussion, LZControl also tracks and accounts for something that the federal government, for the most part, is completely unaware of and does not track, that being predesignated emergency landing areas, referred to as a PELA (Pea-La) by the HAA community.” 

By definition, a PELA is not a heliport but a minimally prepared helicopter landing site that, through a collaborative effort between local first responders and regional HAA providers, is predesignated as a known rendezvous site for emergency patient transport operations in underserved and hard to access areas. This practice was first outlined in FAA advisory circular AC No. 00-59, Integrating Helicopter and Tiltrotor Assets into Disaster Relief Planning in November 1998. The HAA community has since integrated this risk mitigation strategy over the years, providing pilots and medical crews with known locations that pilots and first responders have evaluated prior to being utilized.

While the HAA industry has been utilizing PELAs for several years, and the FAA heliport design advisory circular, AC 150/5390-2C (2012) says, “Predesignating medical emergency sites provides the opportunity to inspect potential sites in advance and to select sites that have adequate clear approach/departure airspace and adequate clear ground space,” the FAA has never codified this language or defined the term PELA. LZControl is currently tracking data for 8,922 PELA sites throughout the U.S., of which none appear to have been considered or evaluated in regard to the impact 5G may have on them.

To add more gasoline to this already smoldering fire, consider the following. According to the FAA’s own online database for special instrument flight procedures, there are 1,781 active special instrument flight procedures (instrument approaches and departures) in existence today. However, these are considered proprietary procedures and can only be used by the owner of the procedure or those operators that the owner gives permission to. Therefore, these instrument flight rule (IFR) procedures are not published, which means the average person and many agencies within the federal government would never know they exist.

Not only do hundreds of hospital heliports in the U.S. have non-published special instrument procedures associated with them, so too do some PELAs. Even though a PELA is not a true heliport in the traditional sense of the word, they allow for underserviced demographics to have access to critical healthcare in times of emergency while providing for a higher level of aviation safety. One such example can be found in Bar Harbor, Maine. The site identified with the Location Identifier 22ME is collocated on an outdoor sporting complex for which the FAA airport master record shows a 60-foot by 60-foot turf surface, which, according to the August 2019 Google Earth satellite photo, is centered on the pitcher’s mound of one of the baseball diamonds. Site location 22ME is identified by the FAA’s online special procedures database as having two instrument procedures, COPTER RNAV (GPS) 182, and HURLA ONE (RNAV) DEPARTURE. Neither of which were probably considered in the 5G interference discussion. 

The final nail in this proverbial data integrity coffin as it relates to vertical lift infrastructure is the lack of record keeping when it comes to heliport airspace (the approach/departure paths). While all heliport proponents in the U.S. are required under Federal Aviation Regulation Part-157 to file FAA Form 7480, Notice for Construction, Alteration and Deactivation of Airports, and this form includes a line item for ingress/egress direction, that information is never captured by the airport master record.

Once the FAA airspace determination process is complete, there is nowhere within the current federal system to capture the heliport’s attaching airspace. This has been a critical issue in protecting heliport airspace for many years and will continue to be a major hurdle for the AAM industry if changes are not instituted soon. Municipalities rely heavily on federal documentation to identify areas in need of special zoning criteria for the protection of airspace, and in this instance, it is nonexistent. The question then becomes, how can anyone make the statement that they have evaluated what the impact 5G will be on vertical lift flight operations at heliports or vertiports when there is literally no record of the approach or departure paths they will fly?

Add to the current data integrity shortcomings, the ever-accelerating implementation of AAM in an effort to advance the future of the electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) transportation model, one has to ask if we are not setting this new industry up for failure before it has even taken off? To speculate on what impact 5G may or may not have on low altitude vertical lift infrastructure in the U.S. would be a significant guess on anyone’s part given that no one knows exactly how much infrastructure there is, where it is physically located and what technology is employed at each site. To say that we have an opportunity to improve in this space would be a major understatement. Hopefully, we can.

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1 Comment

  1. Rex correctly notes that, “only three public-use heliports have ever used federal grant monies from the Airport Improvement Program (AIP).” He adds, “the FAA only has full oversight authority over [these] three heliports in the U.S. This is primarily due to the fact that Congress has never given the FAA oversight authority over that segment of aviation that is classified as private-use.” 

    FAA has “full oversight authority” over everything aeronautical, if by that phrase we mean all the authority it can have under our Constitution. The AIP program is a contract in which organizations that accept federal money agree to conditions that the FAA has no power to impose without their consent.

    The Founders constructed our Constitution to empower the federal government as much as necessary to achieve the goals set out for it, and only that much. This fact, implicit in the structure of the Constitution, was made explicit with ratification and enactment of the 10th Amendment in 1791.

    The Air Commerce Act of 1926 first authorized an agency of the federal government to regulate civil aviation operations. In the century since, federal regulation has taken hold of every aspect of civil aviation that it can under existing Constitutional provisions and Supreme Court cases interpreting them.

    Fifty years ago the U.S. Supreme Court held that the federal government’s power over civil aviation has limits and does not supersede state authority over certain matters, some of which are crucial to the future of vertical flight. For example, in United States v. Causby, 328 U.S. 256 (1946), the Court held that “[t]he air above the minimum safe altitude of flight prescribed by the Civil Aeronautics Authority [forerunner of the FAA] is a public highway and part of the public domain, as declared by Congress in the Air Commerce Act. . . . Flights below that altitude are not within the navigable air space which Congress placed within the public domain, even though they are within the path of glide approved by the Civil Aeronautics Authority. . . .” (Quoting the syllabus of the Court.) See also, Jankovich v. Indiana Toll Road Comm’n, 379 U.S. 487 (1965) (dismissing an appeal because, “the State Supreme Court rested its decision upon independent and adequate state grounds, even though it relied on similar federal grounds, and this Court [the U.S. Supreme Court] is therefore deprived of jurisdiction to review the state court judgment.”) (Quoting the syllabus of the Court.)

    In other words, federal preemption (or “exclusivity”) of authority over civil aviation has a lower limit in space: “the minimum safe altitude of flight prescribed by the” FAA. Below that limit, states also have authority that can affect, although not regulate, civil aviation operations.

    The Supreme Court’s decisions in these and similar cases recognize that U.S. citizens and legal residents have rights that government cannot simply wave away, including the right to the peaceful enjoyment of their land and the right to live free from nuisances. These rights are protected by state law, not federal power.

    The fact that federal preemption of authority in the civil aviation domain has limits is important for the future of vertical flight in the United States. Forward-looking concepts of operation and vehicle designs, loosely collected under the rubrics Urban Air Mobility and Advanced Air Mobility, increasing posit operation in the very-low-altitude airspace between the surface and 1000 feet AGL. In this airspace, the states’ duties to protect their residents’ peaceful enjoyment of their land and right to freedom from nuisance cannot be superseded by federal preemption. A balance must be struck, and it cannot be struck unilaterally by the FAA.

    [Ed: This version has paragraph breaks.]

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