Dangerous business of medical helicopters

June 9, 2008 9:59:21 PM PDT
We've been following the latest developments in the crash of a medical helicopter this past weekend, north of Houston. It killed all four people on board. The NTSB work will take months, but past crashes show night time flying and a lack of technology sometime make dangerous flights even more so.

Stephen Scroggs is Life Flight's chief pilot.

A new Life Flight helicopter is state of the art. It's loaded with warning systems the federal government recommended two years ago that not every operator has followed through on.

This weekend, Life Flight turned down the medical flight from Huntsville. A helicopter operated by PHI, a Life Flight competitor, took the mission. It crashed after 2am killing all four on board.

Counting yesterday's accident, at least 58 people have died in more than 55 medical helicopter accidents since 2002. Out of those fatal flights, 71% came at night.

"It can be so dark out there," Scroggs said. "It's like flying in a completely black room, there's no light out there."

Since the early 1990's, the number of miles EMS helicopters fly every day has nearly doubled. The number of accidents is up 30%.

Which is why the NTSB launched a special investigation into EMS helicopters two years ago concluding that without changes, "some EMS operators will continue to operate in an unsafe manner."

I asked Scroggs what he thought of the NTSB recommendations.

"I thought they were all appropriate," he said.

The NTSB suggested EMS helicopters get terrain awareness systems, suggesting it could've helped avoid 17 of the 55 accidents from 2002 to 2005. The helicopter that crashed did not have them, the Life Flight helicopter does.

The NTSB also recommended night vision goggles. The demand from the military in Iraq is apparently drying up the supply. Life Flight will have them at the end of the year. Phi was planning to install them in the crashed aircraft in coming months.

The industry did not embrace all the recommendations saying it was too much too fast.

In looking at the recommendations, there is one both Life Flight and phi follow. It limits the number of hours crews can be on duty whether they are flying patients or not.

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