Tour Operators Program of Safety


Blue Hawaiian Helicopters was the first company in the United States to be certified under the Tour Operators Program of Safety (TOPS). The company conducts more hours of flying than any other air tour company and has implemented a Safety Systems Management Program in cooperation with the FAA. This safety system goes beyond the requirements of TOPS by incorporating safety assurance feedback loops, much like the quality control systems of ISO 9000.


TOPS history:

In 1993, the need for safety programs specifically geared for the air tour industry became evident. Although helicopter tour operations had a good safety record, the flight-seeing industry had suffered accidents that could have been avoided. Media sensationalism portrayed it as unconcerned with public safety.

One of the leading committees of the Helicopter Association International is the Helicopter Tour Operators Committee (HTOC). Membership includes the leading air tour operators in the United States. The committee resolved that safety was the most important consideration and it would work to form a safety program desighned specifically for the helicopter air tour industry.

 The tour operators, in coordination with several of the standing committees of the HAI, drafted a detailed safety program that was to become the principal guideline for TOPS. This program incorporated the expertise and experience of those who know the industry best: the air tour operators and the manufacturers of the air tour equipment.

In 1995, a draft of the prospective TOPS Program of Safety was presented to  the National Transportation Board (NTSB).as well as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). Those two agencies provided valuable encouragement and assistance in further development of this safety program.

TOPS was incorporated in January 1996 as an independent, non-profit organization, and the TOPS Program of Safety was implemented at that time. For the first time, there was an organization, TOPS, that was dedicated solely to further enhancing the safety of all aspects of helicopter tours.

The effectiveness of the TOPS Program of Safety is well proven by the statistics gathered since 1996. In a typical year, professional helicopter tour operators in the US fly some 100,000 tour hours, of which about 85,000 hours are flown by TOPS members. TOPS members have a cumulative safety record much better than that of general aviation at large.

TOPS members put safety as their number one priority with the mission of making helicopter sightseeing tours among the safest type of flying today. Operators who are approved by TOPS have committed to a higher standard of safety, sharing safety knowledge and to self-policing those standards. The TOPS Program covers the following areas:


Company management will establish and enforce standards to insure that safety is the primary consideration for air tour operations. These standards include avoiding any perception of a thrill ride, aerobatics, nap of the earth flying or unnecessary abrupt maneuvers. TOPS also calls for the establishment of a Safety Management Program that includes outside, professional safety management courses for each member company's Safety Manager, ongoing safety training for personnel and yearly safety audits.

Regular safety audits are required to be conducted by an independent auditor designated by TOPS. Passing the independent audit is a condition of becoming an approved TOPS operator. Repeat audits are required every year.

Management also will establish clear flight operating standards and weather minimums to provide safe and consistent day-to-day operations. These standards will never compromise safety and the pilot(s)' professional judgment will be respected at all times.

Management will encourage coordination with other operators flying in the same air space. Regular meetings will be held to coordinate route, position reporting, noise abatement and safety procedures.

Pilot Qualifications & Training

TOPS members will verify all pilot qualifications and experience using an FAA report of the pilot's certificate of record. Minimum pilot qualifications are 1,000 hours of helicopter Pilot in Command (PIC) time and 100 hours flying the terrain in which the pilot will be working.

Training will emphasize the utmost standard of professionalism, safety, attention to detail, compliance with the Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR's) and company standards. All pilots are trained as a minimum under the FAR Part 135 flight training standards. Additional training also is required for Crew Resource Management, Aeronautical Decision Making, recovery from adverse weather conditions, aircraft performance planning, emergency procedure training and on-board passenger briefings.


Maintenance must be conducted to the higher standards of federal regulations. The TOPS program also requires that technicians are Airframe and Powerplant (A&P) licensed mechanics with three years of helicopter experience. Additional technical training will be offered by all TOPS member companies on a continuing basis including factory training courses.

TOPS members also are required to recognize maintenance safety through the FAA Maintenance Technician Awards Program and industry safety award programs. The sharing of maintenance information with other operators through the Maintenance Malfunction Information Reporting (MMIR) process also is required. A technical library must be maintained and made available to all maintenance personnel.

Operators who contract out maintenance will require contractors to follow TOPS standards, and those contractors also are subject to audit.

Ground support personnel

Ground support personnel are part of the crew and provide an essential contribution to the overall safety of the operation. TOPS member personnel will be trained and qualified to brief passengers on safety and other flight-related information and how to escort passengers in the immediate helicopter activity area. Employees also are required to be trained in assisting passengers with loading, unloading, seat belts and any information relative to the aircraft and flight routine. They will monitor and assist movement of the helicopter to take-off in congested areas, as needed. Ground support personnel also will provide flight following and radio communications with the aircraft and provide emergency notification and implement accident response procedures when appropriate.

Aircraft equipment

In addition to the federal requirements, TOPS requires its members to have Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTS) on all aircraft. For over water flights, members must carry flotation equipment to accomplish a safe emergency water landing, and each passenger and the pilot will wear an approved personal flotation device.

TOPS members also use aircraft visibility enhancing equipment hat includes flashing landing lights, high-visibility rotor blades and strobe lights, as well as equipment to meet federal regulations governing night VFR instrumentation for recovery from adverse weather conditions.

TOPS goes beyond the requirements of the Federal Aviation Regulations for Part 91 and Part 135 operations, under which most tours are conducted. The following table lists some of the TOPS safety requirements that exceed the regulations
  TOPS FAR 135 FAR 91
Required Safety Program yes no no
Annuaal Safety Audits yes no no
Designated Safety Manager yes no no
Human Factors & Aeronautical Decision Making Training yes no no
Ongoing Safety Training yes no no
Pilot Requirements of 1,000 hrs. flt. time and typical terrain experience yes no no
Minimum enroute altitude of 500 feet above ground level yes no no
Minimum of 1 mile visibility yes no no
Maximum angle of bank (30) and pitch (10) with smooth transitions yes no no
Avoidance of the height-velocity curve yes no no
3 year experience requirement for A&P mechanics yes no no
Maintenance factory training requirement yes no no
Mechanic annual training requirement yes no no
Emergency Locator Transmitter required (ELT) yes no no
High visibility rotor blades and flashing landing lights yes no no
Aircraft instrumentation required to night visual flight rule standard yes no no
Specialized ground support personnel training yes no no