Feds Look Into Medical Helicopter CrashesFeb 4, 2009 | Parker Waichman LLP
Last year was the deadliest year in emergency medical helicopter history with rule violations and dangerous actions on air-ambulance flights causing fatalities among patients and medical and flight crews, reports USA TODAY. This week, said the Washington Post, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) began a four-day hearing to review the sudden increase in fatal medical helicopter crashes.
Late last year, federal accident investigators announced that the air-ambulance industry and its regulators moved too slowly to stop the onslaughts of accidents that involved nine air-ambulance crashes and 35 deaths. As a matter-of-fact, the NTSB voted—for the first time ever—to put safety enhancements for air-ambulance flights on its annual "Most Wanted" list of suggested improvements. According to the Washington Post, 29 of the deaths took place in the course of 13 emergency medical flights over one year, noting that the accidents, according to safety experts, were caused by human error or bad weather, to name a couple.
Of the nine crashes, five involved night flying in poor weather in which the pilots were unprepared, said the NTSB, according to the USA Today report, which also noted that of the 35 deaths, six involved patients, representing the most deaths in a 12-month period for that industry. The NTSB also learned that pilots broke rules or exercised risky behavior—such as a pilot agreeing to fly in inclement weather after another pilot refused to do so—in three of the cases.
In January 2006, the NTSB urged the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to make air-ambulance flights subject to more stringent operating rules, require companies to address possible risks before each flight, and install devices that warn pilots in danger of accidentally striking the ground or other obstructions. None of the requests have been fully implemented. An earlier USA Today report on the industry also revealed a number of cases in which pilots ignored or defied rules. Meanwhile, safety experts complain that medical helicopter regulations are more lenient that those governing general commercial aviation, said the Washington Post
The hearings, said the Washington Post, are taking place neither for recommendations nor actions, but for presentations from experts and to question witnesses, pilots, helicopter operators, and officials at the FAA.
USA Today reported that some helicopter industry groups have called for night-vision equipment or the ability to fly in zero visibility while flying in the dark on medical helicopter missions. "If you have an accident and you think it was preventable, that's not acceptable," said Matthew Zuccaro, president of Helicopter Association International, one of the groups calling for the new rules, quoted USA Today.
The NTSB has long begged the FAA to increase its regulation of medical aircraft, but—according to the NTSB, the FAA has not been responsive concerning the four recommendations made three years ago, reported the Washington Post. Sadly, the recommendations were a response to 55 accidents and 54 deaths, which occurred from 2002 to 2005 and in which 29 fatalities were avoidable had the FAA implemented the regulations.