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Deadly Medical Helicopter Crashes on the Rise

Jul 1, 2008 | Parker Waichman LLP

This Sunday saw this year’s ninth medical helicopter collision.  With 2008’s death toll now at 16, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is concerned there is a trend.  This Sunday’s midair collision of two medical helicopters in Arizona killed six people, injured three, and, according to an NTSB official, is part of a "disturbing" national tendency.  FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said that while the number of fatalities dropped between 2006-2007, the agency now is seeing an increase.

NTSB Chairman Mark Rosenker said, "This has been a serious issue.  Just this year there have been eight of these incidents.  We want to see if there are issues that we need to fix to prevent these midairs [collisions] from happening."  Rosenker did not include the Arizona crash, which is this year’s ninth involving medical helicopters; 2007 saw 14 such crashes.  Not all prior crashes occurred in flight.

There was just one survivor from the Arizona crash, an emergency room nurse, in critical condition, Flagstaff police Sgt. Tom Boughner said.  Rosenker confirmed the collision was recorded by a motion-sensitive camera on a hospital parking deck; that the camera was sent to a Washington lab for enhancement; that toxicology tests were conducted on both pilots; and that NTSB investigators, who arrived Monday, would begin examining the wreckage today and reviewing training records, dispatch communications, 72 hours of the pilots' flight history, and employee histories.  

Rosenker said both helicopters were attempting to land at Flagstaff Medical Center, with one approaching southbound, the other northbound.  "They were both in a place they should've been in a normal operation," Rosenker said. "The question is:  Why didn't they see each other?"  He said the weather was clear and sunny at the time of the collision.

FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said three of those killed were aboard a Bell 407 helicopter operated by Air Methods Corporation, an air medical service provider.  Rosenker said the pilot aboard the Air Methods helicopter dropped off an individual earlier to meet weight requirements for landing at the hospital.  Three others were killed aboard the other helicopter, a Bell 407 operated by Classic Helicopter Service of Utah.  The surviving nurse was on that helicopter.  Killed in the collision were the two pilots, two medics, and two patients, said Boughner.  The helicopters set fire to a 10-acre area after crashing to earth, according to fire officials; a secondary explosion following the crash injured three rescue workers.

Concerns over emergency medical helicopters prompted an investigation into such operations detailed in a January 2006 NTSB report, which noted that emergency medical operations are unique in their inherent danger because of the high-pressure circumstances to which they respond, unfamiliar landing sites, and 24-hour emergencies, often in inclement weather.  The investigation also identified several safety issues:  Less stringent requirements for emergency medical operations conducted without patients on board; a lack of aviation flight risk-evaluation programs and of consistent, comprehensive flight dispatch procedures; and no requirements to use technologies—terrain awareness, warning systems—to enhance flight safety.


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