For years I’ve noticed a real lack of understanding of heliport markings and operational procedures on private, commercial and even instructor flight tests. The reason is there’s not much, if anything, covered in the FAA’s Helicopter Flying Handbook, no test questions exists on any of the knowledge tests and practical tests go about as far as the “H” symbol and that’s it. The only real source of heliport information is the FAA AC No. 150/5390-2c titled “Heliport Design” which is really intended for those designing and constructing a heliport.
14 CFR S 1.1 defines a heliport as “an area of land, water or structure used or intended to be used for the landing and takeoff of helicopters”. Other terms such as helipad, helistop, helispot and, offshore, helideck are often used by the helicopter community around the world. This discussion will not differentiate between these terms but will use the term “heliport” to apply to all. Heliports can range from small private areas primarily used for parking one small helicopter to large, elaborate facilities accommodating many helicopters and offering the all the services one would expect to find at a large airport.
Large heliport in Sao Paulo, Brazil capable of 19 simultaneous helicopter operations
There are three main types of heliports: ground level heliports, raised or rooftop heliports and offshore heliports or helidecks. Each type presents its own set of circumstances pilots need to be aware of and proper preflight preparation and training for the specific facility should be accomplished prior to conducting any heliport operations. A ground level heliport large enough to accommodate one small to medium size helicopter, such as one might find at a hospital, a private company or individual’s property is used for this discussion. Although heliports with approved instrument approaches are expanding, this discussion is confined to VFR operations.
Ground Level Heliport Rooftop Heliport Offshore Helideck
As with airports, a set of standardized heliport markings have been developed and in order to safely operate at heliports pilots should to be familiar with these heliport markings. Recommended heliport markings are outlined in FAA Advisory Circular 150/5390-2, Heliport Design and used at heliports around the world. However, since many heliports are privately owned there is a wide variety of non-standard markings and designs that are used, for example use of a company logo to mark the heliport location instead of the standard “H”. The following are typical heliport markings and terminology that pilots should be familiar with prior to conducting heliport operations.
Typical General Aviation Heliport Markings
FATO – Final Approach and Takeoff area. The area over which the pilot completes the final phase of the approach to a hover or to a landing and which the pilot initiates takeoff. The FATO is not always marked or lighted.
TLOF – Touchdown and Liftoff area. The load bearing area, normally centered on the FATO, on which the helicopter lands and/or takes off.
TDPC – Touchdown Position Circle marking. A circular marking located in the center of the TLOF or a parking position. When the pilot’s seat is over TDPC, the whole helicopter undercarriage will be within the TLOF or parking position and all parts of the helicopter rotor system will be clear of any obstacle by a safe margin.
“H” – Standard Heliport/pad Identification marking. The “H” is located in the center of
the TLOF and is orientated on the axis of the preferred approach/departure path.
“X” (not shown) – A yellow “X” over the H indicates the heliport is closed
MTW – Maximum Takeoff Weight. Maximum allowable takeoff weight for the helicopter expressed in thousands of pounds. A diagonal line through the box indicates no weight restrictions.
D-value – The overall length of the helicopter from the tip of the main or forward rotor to the tip of the tail rotor, fin or other rear-most point of the helicopter, expressed in feet.
Other markings may include a company, city or hospital name , appropriate frequency or “PVT” indicating a private helipad. Heliports may have a flight path alignment marking, consisting of one or more arrows to indicate a preferred approach and departure flight direction. An arrow pointing towards the center of the TLOF depicts an approach direction while an arrow pointing away from the center of the TLOF depicts a departure direction. In the case of a flight path limited to a single approach or departure direction the arrow is unidirectional ( ). In the case of a heliport with a bidirectional approach/takeoff flight path available, the arrow marking is bidirectional ( ).
Larger heliports may have taxiways or taxi routes leading to specified parking areas. Standard taxiway markings consisting of a single solid yellow centerline marking and double yellow line edge markings ( ) lead to a parking position identification marking, typically a number or a letter. Passenger walkways are marked with alternating black and white diagonal lines ( ).
If the heliport operator intends for the heliport to support night operations, the FATO and/or the TLOF should be equipped with green perimeter lighting. Lighting indicating the TLOF will be flush lights whereas omnidirectional raised lighting may be used outside the TLOF or along the outer edge of a safety area. Green approach/departure path alignment lights may extend outward across the TLOF and FATO. Taxiways use the standard green centerline and blue edge lighting.
A flashing white/green/yellow heliport identification beacon is optional equipment for night operations. It is intended to help pilots visually locate the heliport and will be located on or near the heliport. If the heliport is approved for commercial night operations a lighted wind cone will be used.
Prior to performing any heliport operations (arrivals, ground operations or departures) pilots should become familiar with all of the local heliport procedures. Due to the nature of heliports and their possible locations in congested or over otherwise hostile terrain, local arrival or departure flight paths, altitudes and reporting points may have been established to enhance safe operations. Obstacles such as buildings, wires, towers of all kinds, noise sensitive areas, or overlying airspace may dictate indirect arrival and/or departure routes pilots need to follow. More and more heliport information is being published in the A/FD section of the Chart Supplement and commercial directories are adding heliports to their databases. Pilots can also contact the heliport manager to obtain this information. Remote and/or low usage heliport operations can be very similar to confined area or pinnacle operations in which the pilot must determine the arrival and departure route based on a thorough high and low reconnaissance. As with many off airport situations, heliport ground operations must consist of precision hovering skills to insure main and tail rotor clearances are maintained. Other important considerations include:
1. The loss of peripheral reference if the TLOF is small or elevated.
2. The possible slipperiness of wet, metal heliport surfaces.
3. The management passengers/people on or about the heliport.
4. The knowledge of heliport refueling procedures (hot or cold), if appropriate.
5. The possible electromagnetic disturbance caused, for example, by large air-conditioning units or elevators located near a ground level or rooftop helipad.
As a member of the Aviation Rulemaking Advisory Committee’s (ARAC) Helicopter Flying Handbook Working Group which is trying to revise the handbook to align it with the publication of the upcoming Helicopter Airman Certification Standards, I’m hopeful that much of the information in this essay can be incorporated into the new handbook. We’ll see.