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... at the Risk of their Lives!

Helicopter Search and Rescue (SAR) operations, by their very nature, carry risks not associated with other types of flying. SAR pilots often cope with an unusually hostile environment and minimum planning time, in order to save lives. However, what is not acceptable is the lack of sound safety regulations and clearly responsible authority, which makes the operations an unnecessarily risky business. That is why ECA strongly advocates for the establishment of European standards and rules in this area.

For many years, SAR had usually been governed by the State, the military or the coast guard. However, the provision of SAR operations has changed in many countries and many SAR operations are now being operated by civilian contractors. Despite this shift, these operations are still considered as a “national” issue. As a consequence, they are not regulated at EU or global level. The only exception is the International Maritime Organisation (IMO), which regulates SAR at sea.

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When in 2006, a civil SAR helicopter, operated in the Netherlands under a UK Air Operator’s Certificate, crashed, the Dutch Safety Board investigation report concluded that “In practice, however, the “civil SAR” did and still does find itself in a kind of vacuum, in which nobody appears fully and directly accountable for its use.” The report also argues that, given SAR is not anymore a national affair, it is time to regulate these operations at international level and explains that the UK Civil Aviation Authority expects the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) to seriously consider this issue.

More recently, at the Helicopter Association International Forum in January 2011, the US Federal Aviation Authority recognised that the statute of these operations is “vague” and “very confusing” and explained that the FAA will soon develop safety rules and guidance, considering “all contracted aircraft operations as civil aircraft operations”, unless exemptions are agreed by the FAA itself.

Whilst the US and some EU countries have already identified this important black hole in helicopter safety regulation, EASA continues to close their eyes and reject ECA’s demands to have these operations regulated at EU level. Indeed, in its recent proposal for future rules on air operations, EASA reiterated its position, simply arguing that “Search and rescue and similar services remain the responsibility of the individual Member States.”

ECA disagrees that operations conducted by civilian operators, with civilian pilots and civilian aircraft should still be considered as State operations; and cannot understand how EASA continue to ignore an area where accidents rates are relatively high and operations involve several EU Member States. ECA therefore calls upon EASA, the Commission and Member States to follow the example of their US counterpart and to start drafting SAR safety regulations quickly.