Flight regulations limit emergency medical, rescue helicopter missions

Travis County STAR Flight (KXAN Photo)
Travis County STAR Flight (KXAN Photo)

TRAVIS COUNTY (KXAN) — STARFlight was called out to the scene of a four-vehicle deadly crash Tuesday morning in Jonestown, but had to cancel the flight because of reports the ceiling had dropped to about 600 feet.

Helicopters responding to EMS calls during the day require an 800 foot ceiling between the cloud base and the terrain on ground. If a ceiling is anything less than 800 foot, whether due to rising terrain or lowering cloud levels, crews legally cannot fly. The Federal Aviation Administration, or FAA, regulates flight conditions for helicopters acting as air ambulances.

“We have to have that ceiling to be able to legally fly, and it’s not only at the take off point, but it’s also en route, and at the destination and then on the way back, as well,” said Mark Parcell, the chief pilot for Travis County STARFlight.

Parcell said the crew made the correct decision in cancelling the flight and turning around to safety. “The crew realized that there was no way with the rising terrain heading further west, that they were going to be able to maintain the required 800 foot ceiling between the base of the clouds and the terrain below them.”

The day time 800 ft. ceiling requirement also demands a minimum local visibility of two miles. At night, the FAA requires an 800 foot ceiling and three mile visibility for air ambulances.

Rescue Training

The Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) aircraft participated in simulated helicopter rescue training Tuesday at the Buda Fire Department. DPS aircraft, along with aircraft from Texas Parks and Wildlife, were used to perform water rescue simulations with swift water technicians. Emergency officials trained with simulations on roof tops, vehicles, and trees in Buda.

Crews told KXAN the training happens at least once per quarter. They say it offers first responders practical scenarios to prepare crews for flash flood emergencies they often respond to in central Texas.

“We live in a flash flood alley, so to speak. If you go from Temple–Fort Hood area all the way to San Antonio, there’s several creeks and rivers that like to flood, especially with sudden downbursts,” said Tim Ochsner, the assistant chief pilot for DPS aircraft. “Over the last three or four years, we’ve had several instances of this happening and it’s affected a lot of people.”

Emergency officials say because of the frequency of flooding in the area, it is very important that they train for rescue missions on a consistent basis.

“There’s a lot of things that can go wrong, and in order to have a successful operation, fire crews on the ground [and] rescuers in the air, need to be familiar with all the equipment and operations and specifically communications to prevent injury or death,” said Assistant Buda Fire Chief Gary Langshaw. “Texas has seen several disasters in the past few years and we need to be prepared.”

In Fiscal Year 2015 (10/1/14-09/30/15), STARFlight had 1798 total dispatches. Of those, 258 flights were aborted for weather reasons.

In Fiscal Year 2016 (10/1/15-09/30/16), STARFlight had 1891 total dispatches. Of those, 263 flights were aborted due to weather.

Beyond the local coverage area of 30 miles that STARFlight normally flies inside, during the day the FAA would require an 800-foot ceiling and three mile visibility and at night, a 1,000-foot ceiling and three mile visibility.

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