What the Heliport?

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Welcome to “What the Heliport?” our first installment of fun facts and good-to-know information surrounding all things heliport and vertical lift infrastructure.

Today, we’ll start from the ground up, no pun intended (okay, maybe a little), exploring a few basic questions whose answers may surprise you: What is a Heliport? How do I know if this heliport is “legal?” Can I land here?

Ask the average Joe or Jane off the street “what is a heliport” and they may point to an H painted in the parking lot of the nearest hospital, mention “it’s like an airport but for helicopters”, or say “who needs a heliport? Isn’t that kind of the point, you can land anywhere?”  A common comment we get is “My instructor told me I can land anywhere as long as I have the property owner’s permission.”  Poll a random sampling of helicopter pilots, and you may hear similar answers.

Now we all know helicopters and VTOLs offer flexibility that our fixed-wing friends envy, so establishing a landing area may seem much simpler than planning an airport, but there’s actually more to it than the “H” in the parking lot; in fact that’s just scratching the surface.  Literally! There are a series of “Airspace Obstruction-Clearance Surfaces” that support that “H” because, as it turns out, as operationally flexible as helicopters may be compared with airplanes, physics still apply.  Per FAR Part 77.23, Heliport Imaginary Surfaces, a heliport includes a “Primary Surface”, an “Approach Surface” and “Transitional Surfaces”.   The primary surface, also called the “Final Approach and Takeoff Area” (FATO) extends just a touch beyond the physical helipad/helideck.  The approach surfaces, aka flight paths, extend up and out from there, and we like to compare the transitional surfaces to a highway shoulder: there to use in an emergency in case the road is blocked.  Each of these surfaces are carefully modeled and planned for aviation safety when a heliport is established. 

This brings us to our next question: “How do I know if this heliport is “legal”?  Okay, legal may not be the right term here, but it hits close to the mark.  The short answer is: if there’s a Location Identifier, or “LOCID” assigned to the site, you’re probably in the clear.  The longer answer: FAR Part 157 Notice of Construction, Alteration, Activation, and Deactivation of Airports, establishes notification requirements for proponents wishing to establish a heliport. There are a few uses that are exempt from this process, but contrary to popular belief, private use and special use heliports, including those for hospitals, do not meet those exemptions.  If the heliport has not gone through an FAR Part 157 Airspace Study process by FAA staff, its owner has not complied with federal regulations.

So, what are the steps to establish a heliport? Step one – plan a heliport (see above for more than just the “H”).  Step two – tell the FAA about the heliport before you start using it.  More specifically, submit a Landing Area Proposal with supporting exhibits. Step three – receive a “Determination”  from the FAA, either objecting or not objecting, sometimes with conditions, with the proposed project.  Step four – accept the FAA’s determination to publish an Airport Master Record (AMR), and step five – get a site-specific LOCID.  So, if you’re wondering whether any given heliport is “legal” head to the FAA’s handy Airport Data Information Portal at adip.faa.gov, or airnav.com, to see whether there is an AMR on file and LOCID assigned to the site. 

A quick disclaimer here, today I am only talking about federal requirements to establish a heliport.  There can be a whole series of state and local level processes also required by law, depending on where you’re flying, er, landing. 

This brings us to our last question – “Can I land there?”.  Until recently, the FAA did not provide specific guidance to distinguish a “private use” landing area from a “public use” site. With the latest iteration of their Heliport Design Advisory Circular FAA added guidance to include a “PVT” on private use heliports to let a pilot easily discern from the air whether they can land there or not.  That’s not to say you shouldn’t “Land and Live” in an emergency – but you should not generally be landing at a Prior Permission Required, or “PPR” facility without…well…prior permission.  Another good hint – if the helipad/helideck has a red field or a white cross, it’s probably at a hospital and, tempting as the hospital cafeteria food may be for a lunch stop, should remain open for patient, organ, or medical team use.  If there’s a corporate logo or other central marking that’s not an “H”, also very likely to be PPR.

If the markings don’t help, head back to ADIP or AirNav, for more information.  If you can’t find your facility there, contact Heliplanners or your local FSDO to learn more about how to establish your heliport and, in the process, protect your liability! We see too many accidents happen and pilot’s wings being taken away for something that wasn’t their fault when shoddy infrastructure is to blame.  Know your Ps! Proper preparation prevents poor performance – and when poor performance can mean lives lost, this is preparation that you don’t want to avoid!

Kat Wright