The FAA said last week it will take a fresh look at a longstanding rule that exempts aircraft operated by the federal government from most FAA regulations. "The statute is vague," said John Allen, the FAA official who oversees flight standards. "It is very confusing." Problems arise especially when Part 135 operators work under contract to a federal agency, according to Helicopter Association International, which hosted last week's forum. The FAA will issue a new Advisory Circular soon to clarify the issue, according to HAI. Allen said the agency plans to consider all contracted operations as civil operations by default. Operators and the FAA must be notified in advance, on a flight-by-flight basis, if public-aircraft status applies.
Allen also said it will be up to the FAA to determine if flights can be classified as a "legitimate public-aircraft operations" under the terms of the current statute. The NTSB raised questions about the practice of operating "public aircraft" during its recent investigation of a fatal helicopter crash in California during firefighting operations. "Public aircraft have been made the orphans of the aviation industry," said NTSB chair Deborah Hersman. "It's now time for the FAA and other government agencies to step up and take responsibility." About 100 people attended the HAI forum in Alexandria, Va., last Thursday, with 200 more taking part via a live webcast. The PowerPoint presentations from the NTSB and FAA speakers are posted at the HAI site. Allen welcomed further comment from the public via e-mail.