By Robert A. Clifford
Clifford Law Offices
A city mourned when it heard about the tragic story of a helicopter that crashed as it transported a 13-month-old infant of Leland, Illinois. She was suffering seizures and needed immediate attention at Children’s Memorial Hospital on the night of Wednesday, Oct. 15.
A brave and proud paramedic and nurse from the Air Angels critical care transport service accompanied her during what was to be a life-saving flight. Instead, all three were killed along with the helicopter pilot when it crashed in Aurora.
Immediately, investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were dispatched to determine the cause of the crash, the second crash for the Air Angels in five years. Preliminary reports indicated that the helicopter struck a support wire holding a 750-foot radio tower.
NTSB records indicate that 24 people have been killed this year in 16 medical helicopter accidents, including one just a few weeks before in the suburban area of Washington, D.C., of Forestville, Maryland, that also claimed four lives. From January, 2002, to January, 2005, the NTSB reported 41 emergency medical services helicopter accidents, and its officials have announced it will hold public hearings next year to explore the reasons for the increase in fatal medevac helicopter crashes.
The Transportation and Infrastructure Committee of the House also is looking into holding hearings early in 2009 as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the agency that regulates aircraft, is up for re-authorization. The FAA also has formed a task force to look into the increased number of medical flight accidents and it says it is in the process of redrafting its safety rules for such critical care flights.
On June 27, 2006, the FAA’s website indicates that a Special Committee was established to develop Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS) standards that could be used to develop FAA requirements for such systems installation and operations. TAWS tracks an aircraft’s heading and altitude, and issues alerts if pilots are too close to danger. It even provides a computer screen in the cockpit that shows approaching obstacles to pilots so they can steer clear of them. Right now TAWS is merely “encouraged.”
In August, 2004, the FAA initiated a new government and industry partnership to improve the safety of what is calls Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) operators. At that time, it recommended short and long term strategies for reducing accidents. That included a notice published by the FAA on Jan. 28, 2005, that provided guidance for safety inspectors to help operators review pilot and mechanic decision-making skills to help in their analysis to determine whether to launch a mission.
A study published in 2006 by Dr. Bryan Bledsoe, a University of Nevada emergency medicine specialist, found that of more than 37,000 patients flown from the scene of the injury to a trauma center, more than 60 percent did not have life-threatening injuries. Granted, he may have had the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, but risk evaluation protocol is not required in all states in determining life-and-death circumstances before these flights take off. Flight risk evaluation programs and procedures are being examined by the FAA in the future.
The NTSB, which is an advisory body to the FAA, is recommending several measures to improve safety including more training for pilots and equipping aircraft with TAWS and other equipment that would make it safer to fly at night and in poor weather. Its investigations have demonstrated that many of these accidents could have been prevented had some of these safety measures been in place.
Why is the training of pilots and crew members just now being taken seriously? Why aren’t TAWS, night vision goggles and other safety measures required for these types of flights? The Aurora pilot was not required to file a flight plan and had not. He was flying solo, without the aid of a co-pilot.
Today, it is estimated that there are approximately 750 emergency medical service helicopters operating with more than 500,000 medical transport flights each year. The upcoming hearings are very important, and the NTSB and congressional members need to make sure that they happen and happen fast because some of the finest hospitals in the country are located in densely populated areas. The Aurora crash tragically claimed four people, but had it occurred closer to its ultimate destination, many others could have been in danger
All of this regulatory talk is great, but it’s time for action. The FAA needs to enforce stricter safety standards as it has with commercial airlines. Since most of the helicopters are privately owned, it has merely been “encouraging” and “promoting” and “recommending” safety-enhancing technology such as radar altimeters, night vision goggles and mandating two-pilots on all flights.
Certainly, no one would dispute how all of these people put their lives on the line to try to save others in medical emergencies, but it seems that it is takes tragedies – in this case, numerous tragedies – for federal officials to notice that a problem exists. Stricter safety measures must be considered and enforced before even more lives are put at risk.