Medevac helicopter flights could be grounded by new 5G rollout

Alan Levin, Bloomberg News on

Published in Business News

“This situation, where lives have been put at risk, was completely avoidable,” James Viola, president and chief executive officer of the association, said. “The families of those who die because a helicopter could not be dispatched to an accident scene that was too close to a 5G tower will not be consoled by faster Internet speeds.”

The CTIA, a trade group that represents wireless service providers, said almost 40 countries around the world have allowed similar 5G signals and they operate without causing harmful interference to helicopters.

The agreement announced last week “includes the broadest and most stringent protection for helicopters anywhere in the world,” CTIA said in a statement.

The federal requirement for radar altimeters on commercial helicopters is relatively new and was pushed by the National Transportation Safety Board after multiple fatal crashes in which low-flying copters struck the ground.

The Helicopter Association in October petitioned FAA to waive the requirement, arguing that alternative safety measures were available, and air-medical and off-shore oil flights would grind to a halt without an exemption. So far, FAA has not acted on the request.

Of the 300,000 people transported on air-medical helicopters each year, 40,000 to 50,000 are picked up from parking lots, open fields and other unimproved sites following an emergency, the helicopter group said in the petition to FAA.


One such flight occurred Tuesday night in South Kingstown, Rhode Island, after a fatal head-on crash. A Boston MedFlight helicopter had to touch down in a nearby field to pick up a critically injured 59-year-old woman, said Rick Kenin, chief operating officer-transport at the company.

Boston MedFlight normally requires pilots to use night-vision goggles to minimize the risks on such operations because they help pilots see power lines, trees and other obstructions. But because FAA regulations require a working radar altimeter while flying with night-vision goggles, this is the type of flight that may not be legal after 5G gets switched on in the area, Kenin said.

Even if the FAA grants air-ambulance operators a waiver from the rules, allowing pilots to make such landings without the night-vision aids, Kenin says it’s troubling.

“If we are going to a 5G interference area, we’re going to be going back to the 1990s where we went in with eyeballs and a search light,” he said.

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