Program Overview

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 self-policing those standards. The TOPS Program covers the following areas:

Company management will establish and enforce standards to ensure 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 annual safety audits.

Regular safety audits must be conducted by an independent auditor designated by TOPS. Passing the independent audit is a condition of becoming an approved TOPS operator. Passing an annual audit is required to remain a member in good standing.

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.

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 (FARs), and company standards. All pilots are trained as a minimum under the FAR Part 135 flight training standards. Additional training is also required in 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 technicians be 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 are also 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 is also 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 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 are also 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 will also provide flight following and radio communications with the aircraft, and provide emergency notification and implement accident response procedures when appropriate.

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.



Required Safety Program
Annual Safety Audits
Designated Safety Manager
Human Factors & Aeronautical Decision Making Training
Ongoing Safety Training
Pilot Requirements of 1,000 hrs. flt. time and typical terrain experience
Minimum enroute altitude of 500 feet above ground level
Minimum of 1 mile visibility
Maximum angle of bank (30) and pitch (10) with smooth transitions
Avoidance of the height-velocity curve
3 year experience requirement for A&P mechanics
Maintenance factory training requirement
Mechanic annual training requirement
Emergency Locator Transmitter required (ELT)
High visibility rotor blades and flashing landing lights
Aircraft instrumentation required to night visual flight rule standard
Specialized ground support personnel training