The FAA has issued an exemption allowing helicopter air ambulance (HAA) operators to conduct rescue flights if their radar altimeters are affected or could be affected by interference from 5G cellphone signals. Helicopter Association International announced the welcome news Friday. “This exemption will allow HAA operators to continue to do what they do best—save lives,” HAI President James Viola said in a statement. “There is no question that it is in the public interest for these lifesaving operations to continue. HAI’s top priority will always be safety, and we will continue to work with FAA to determine the best solutions, whether through exemptions or through alternative methods of compliance, to provide all our members with the means for continued safe operation.”
Medevac helicopter operators were especially hard hit by more than 1400 NOTAMs issued by the FAA on Thursday restricting operations that require the use of radar altimeters. Under FAA regs, not only do commercial helicopters require a radar altimeter, it must be working before the pilots can use night vision goggles to help them land at night. Most medevac pilots use goggles when landing and taking off on the roads, parking lots and open fields that they often use for such flights and also at hospital helipads. The exemption allows them to use the goggles in areas covered by the NOTAMs as long as they can be warned of obstructions through radio contact with people on the ground or they can do a high-altitude check of the landing area using a moveable searchlight if ground personnel aren’t available.
In granting the exemption, the FAA said it was in the public interest that helicopter medevac flights be allowed to continue and that it was satisfied the additional precautions were enough to do it safely. But it also set a two-year limit on the exemption while operators either modify or replace radar altimeters that are susceptible to 5G interference.
“This is a significant victory not only for HAA operators but for the countless communities and hospital networks that would have been deprived of the critical life-saving support that can only be offered by helicopter operations,” says John Shea, director of government affairs at HAI. “While this is great news for the HAA sector, the even bigger story is that the FAA’s decision on HAI’s petition has outlined a path for replicating this exemption for other helicopter operations that serve the public interest.” The restrictions are expected to severely affect helicopter operations servicing offshore oil rigs.