Chartering a private helicopter, whether for quick transport or a family vacation experience, has always been popular with luxury travel clientele. And of course, it goes without saying that there are a myriad of precautions put in place to ensure the safety of helicopter passengers. But as we’ve seen in the last few days, there are tragic exceptions to every stringent rule, which we must face head-on while digesting the loss of Kobe Bryant, daughter Gianna Bryant, and seven other lives in the January 26 helicopter crash in Calabasas.
As of now, the Federal Aviation Administration is investigating the crash as the world focuses on remembering the legend that is Kobe Bryant. While challenging to consider, it is also important to think about what this means in the realm of helicopter travel, and what actions must be taken when chartering a private aviation vehicle. Below, we’ll breakdown the need-to-knows in regards to chartering a private helicopter, with a focus on FAA regulations, questions to ask your pilot, and other safety measures.
Regulations to Know When Chartering Private Helicopters
As of now, the FAA is investigating what caused the Sikorsky S-76B flying from John Wayne Airport in Orange County to Newbury Park to crash. They know the helicopter was operating under special visual flight rules clearance. The onus in such instances is on the pilot to determine if the conditions are safe enough to fly through.
On a private helicopter, the pilot-in-command (or PIC)’s role is of the utmost importance. Contrary to the practices of private jets or commercial flights, the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook grants the helicopter pilot full jurisdiction “to make sound, safe decisions throughout the flight.” The pilot must also conduct a thorough pre-flight inspection and regular maintenance. In the FAA’s manual for safe helicopter charter, they cite the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB)’s finding that “approximately 80 percent of all aviation accidents are caused by pilot error, the human factor.”
The difference between helicopter flights versus private jets and commercial flights is that helicopter transport does, unfortunately, have a much higher accident rate than any fixed-wing aircraft. According to the FAA, this is likely because of “the helicopter’s unique capabilities to fly and land in more diverse situations than fixed-wing aircraft and pilot attempts to fly the helicopter beyond the limits of his or her abilities or beyond the capabilities of the helicopter.”
A fixed-wing aircraft, whether a private jet or commercial vehicle, must both follow the regulations set out by 14 CFR 91 - General Operating and Flight Rules. However, there are still more stringent requirements for commercial planes—for example, a commercial aircraft is required to have more frequent maintenance checks and commercial pilots have strict rules that govern when they are allowed to fly. Pilots for private jets do not.
Furthermore, private jets have to reckon with a new mandate as of January 2020. In accordance with ADS-B, all jets must be outfitted with technology that automatically reports the location of the aircraft. This law does not extend to helicopter charters.
Lastly, helicopter charters are not required to have a black box the way commercial aviation vehicles are. These black boxes are meant to record the happenings in flight in the event of a crash.
What to Ask the Operator Before You Charter
The FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook implies that the bulk of the responsibility in terms of maintaining the helicopter, making decisions in the air, and determining flight conditions pre-flight, lies with the pilot. As a result, the best practice is to have a candid and open line of communication with your pilot prior to your helicopter charter.
In many chartering instances, the charterer has a long-standing rapport with the pilot. But whether or not you know the pilot beforehand, you can present him or her with standards that will make you feel safe. You can, for example, ask your pilot about fog flight minimums. The Los Angeles Times reports that, according to an LAPD spokesperson, “LAPD’s flight minimums are 2 miles of visibility and an 800-foot cloud ceiling.”
Before boarding a helicopter, ask that your pilot check with the local police department to see if they are flying their helicopters in current conditions. You can also ask about how weather implications are impacting commercial airline and private jet flights.