Denning v. Airbus Helicopters

On February 22, 2013, an air ambulance helicopter crashed in winter flying conditions a few minutes after take-off, killing the pilot, a flight nurse and injuring another medical crew member. The air ambulance took off from the Integris Baptist Hospital destined for Watonga Municipal Hospital to pick up a cardiac patient and transport him to the University of Oklahoma Medical Center. The helicopter was owned by EagleMed LLC. Dark night visual meteorological conditions were prevalent in the area. Only four minutes into the flight, witnesses stated that it rapidly descended toward the ground and exploded into flames in the parking lot of St. Ann’s Retirement Home.

The pilot had worked for EagleMed for two years. He held a commercial helicopter pilot certificate with instrument helicopter ratings. His total flight time was almost 5,000 hours, almost all of which was in helicopters. He had 202 flight hours in the AS 350-B2 Airbus. The chief pilot of EagleMed stated that the pilot showed great professional conduct on the job.

The Airbus AS 350-B2 helicopter was designed and manufactured by Airbus Helicopters, formerly named Eurocopter. This particular aircraft had a modified engine designed by Soloy. The AS 350-B2 was manufactured with a Turbomeca engine, but air ambulances frequently had them modified to hold a Honeywell engine which was roughly the same size as the Turbomeca but had more horsepower. The modification included replacing the original engine with the Honeywell engine and replacing the air intake system with a new cowling and intake duct system. The AS-350 B2 is powered by a single turbine engine. If this engine fails, there is a strong likelihood that the helicopter will crash, possibly killing those on board.

The Airbus helicopter air inlet system is designed to be on the top of the engine. When it is modified by Soloy, the air inlet has a sharp 90 degree bend in it. These factors, among others, make it possible for snow, ice or water to get into the air inlet system and go straight into the turbine engine. In fact, before this accident, Airbus representatives had admitted in deposition that a small amount of ice, snow or water could cause a total engine failure. Investigators estimated an amount as small as 2-3 tablespoons of liquid or ice could cause complete engine failure.

On the day before the accident, the EagleMed Base mechanic inspected the helicopter, which was parked at Integris Hospital. The helicopter had been out of service for an undisclosed period of time due to poor weather. The mechanic cleared off snow and ice that had accumulated on and around the helicopter. He topped off fluids and checked engine parts for snow and ice. He stated that there was some residual accumulation around the engine inlet. Since at the time there was light precipitation and a hard freeze predicted, the mechanic assumed no one would attempt to fly the helicopter that night. He even discussed with a pilot from the prior shift that the weather wasn’t good enough to fly.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determined that ice trapped in the air inlet was ingested during flight causing the engine to fail. Slack Davis Sanger represented the estate of the flight nurse who was killed in the crash. He was a cardiac nurse, Iraq War veteran, and the father of three children. The plaintiff, our client, alleged that the ice and water was not detectable by the pilot during a pre-flight inspection due to the engine modification and the low light nighttime conditions. A design modification proposed by the plaintiff would have melted the ice and permitted the trapped water to harmlessly escape the inlet before freezing. Slack Davis Sanger secured a substantial settlement for the flight nurse’s family.

Investigative Report