The fact that two medical helicopters crashed in one day – in Oklahoma and in Iowa – and both follow a fatal crash in Illinois last month, points to a safety concern that bears further discussion and action.Since 1983, my practice has focused on representing individuals and families of persons killed or injured in aviation crashes. A significant aspect of that practice has involved handling numerous crashes of air ambulance helicopters.
As the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has emphasized on several occasions, air ambulance helicopter crashes frequently involve one of two common scenarios: pilot loss of control when operating in low light or low visibility conditions or mechanical failure of the helicopter.
These recent crashes raise many familiar questions:
- What role did weather and flying conditions play? Time and time again, we see air ambulance helicopters crashing in low light or poor visibility conditions. Many crashes have occurred in both low light or poor visibility conditions such as at night in rain, fog or snow. Because air ambulance helicopters operate in proximity to the ground, the probability of a crash increases dramatically once the pilot relying on visual references loses them.
- Why was the flight being made? Was the trip medically necessary? Could the medical outcomes have been enhanced only by use of a helicopter ambulance? While few details are known about the medical helicopter missions that led to the January 2 crashes, studies have shown that many missions undertaken by helicopter ambulances are medically unnecessary and expose the patient and crew to inappropriate and unwarranted risks on either the outbound leg to retrieve the patient or the return leg inbound to the medical facility.
- What was the recent maintenance history on the helicopter? Had it recently had maintenance performed? As we saw in the July 2010 crash of an Air Methods helicopter in Tucson, Arizona, the maintenance performed on the helicopter just before the fatal flight was directly responsible for the engine failure and resulting crash.
We have now seen three more air ambulance crashes within the last month, two of which were fatal. This is reminiscent of other periods, such as the summer of 2008 and the fall of 2009 when multiple air ambulance crashes occurred in a short period. In 2008 alone, there were 29 fatalities in air ambulance crashes.
Unfortunately, as these crashes are investigated and the questions are answered, we are reminded that the prior lessons are not being learned and safety is not being practiced at an appropriate level for the patients and medical crew members on board. As NTSB member Robert Sumwalt stated in a May 2011 presentation, “the current [air helicopter air ambulance] accident record is unacceptable.”
The recent crashes in Illinois, Oklahoma and Iowa remind us just how dangerous it is to be a patient, nurse or paramedic on one of these helicopters. We must learn from these sad events. – Michael Slack
Besides being a practicing attorney, Michael Slack is an active instrument-rated private pilot, holds B.S. and M.S. degrees in Aerospace Engineering from Texas A&M University and is a registered professional engineer in Texas (inactive status). He has been recognized as one of the Top 100 attorneys in Texas by Best Lawyers. Prior to becoming an attorney, Mr. Slack worked at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.