What To Expect

When you fly with a TOPS member helicopter tour operator, you can be assured that your safety is our first priority.

TOPS members are FAA Part 135 Operators

The FAA allows helicopter operators to provide tours under two different sets of rules, Part 91 and Part 135 (named after the section in the FAA rules the operator must follow).

Part 91 was written to regulate operations for small non-commercial aircraft and focuses mainly on operating parameters, such as weather and airspace. A tour operated under Part 91 is allowed, but must be non-stop, begin and end at the same location, must be conducted within a 25-mile radius of the airport, and be approved via a letter of authorization from the local FAA office. How the flight is conducted, experience and skill of staff, and equipment required for the aircraft is limited to basic flight rules, as, again, the intent of this part of the regulations was to govern non-commercial operations. Pilots, for instance, are required to have only 150 hours of flight experience – the minimum requirement to receive a commercial license.

In contrast, Part 135 rules are written to govern commercial operations, such as professional tours, charter and air taxi. These operations have very detailed and strict operational requirements. Additionally, they must adhere to legal aspects as well as much higher standard of safety requirements than Part 91 operated aircraft. Pilots must also go through more training than those flying for a Part 91 operation.

Part 135 to the next level

TOPS takes the FAA Part 135 rules to the next level. In addition to requiring operators to operate under Part 135, the program includes many additional safety and operational requirements above and beyond the FAA rules, and is constantly enhancing its requirements in a dedication to continuous improvement. Due to this added layer of safety focus, here is what you can expect from a TOPS operator tour:

  • Your flight will not be conducted as a thrill ride – the maximum angle of bank (turns) must be less than 30 degrees and pitch (nose up or down) must be less than 10 degrees, with smooth transitions.
  • The doors remain on the aircraft for your safety.
  • All aircraft are equipped with Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTS).
  • All aircraft have flotation equipment on all extended flights over water to accomplish a safe emergency water landing.
  • Each passenger and pilot will have an approved personal flotation device for all flights over water.
  • All aircraft have visibility enhancing equipment such as flashing landing lights, high-visibility rotor blades and strobe lights to help other aircraft see and avoid them.
  • All aircraft are equipped with instrumentation to assist in recovery from adverse weather conditions.
  • All pilots must have a minimum of 1,000 hours of flight experience
  • The operator has an active safety program, a designated safety manager and ongoing safety training.
  • The operator passes an annual independent safety audit.
  • Staff undergo Human Factors and Aeronautical Decision Making training
  • All flights are flown at 500 feet above ground level or higher.
  • There must be at least one mile of visibility for the flight to be conducted.
  • Mechanics have at least three years of experience on the type of aircraft or a combination of experience and factory training and receive annual training to maintain skill.
  • Ground support personnel receive specialized training.