Although the U.S. remains the gold standard in aviation safety, a sharp rise in fatalities among on-demand air charter operations last year has raised a flag with the NTSB.
Safety of emergency medical services flights
Bell 407, Huntsville, Texas, June 8, 2008–The Board determined the probable cause of the EMS 407 accident was the pilot’s failure to identify and arrest the helicopter’s descent. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s inadvertent flight into IMC and the limited outside visual reference due to the dark night conditions, low clouds and fog.
A trio of helicopter trade associations–the Association of Air Medical Services, the Helicopter Association International and the Air Medical Operators Association–is recommending the FAA mandate night vision goggles, enhanced vision systems, or IFR-only operations for all night flights of EMS helicopters. The recommendations overlap many key advisories the NTSB made in 2006.
At the conclusion of three-and-a-half days of NTSB public hearings on the safety of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operations early last month, Board member Robert Sumwalt summed up what several witnesses had already conceded, “There is no single magic bullet.”
A series of fatal medevac helicopter crashes last year prompted fresh calls for increased industry regulation, and by November the FAA had announced changes to the operations specifications governing helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) flights under Part 135. Those covered flight planning, weather minimums and the use of night-vision goggles (NVGs).
At the conclusion of four days of National Transportation Safety Board public hearings on the safety of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operations earlier this month, board member Robert Sumwalt summed up what several witnesses had already conceded: “There is no single magic bullet.”
Dec. 3, 2007–Eurocopter BK 117C1 operated by Evergreen Alaska Helicopters crashes into the ocean on a VFR flight in IMC near Whittier, Alaska, killing all four aboard.
One week before the crash, an EMT complained to hospital management that the program’s pilots were overworked and that, “losing pilots to burn out is the best-case scenario.”
Four days of NTSB public hearings on helicopter EMS safety began today in Washington, D.C., amid calls by the agency and the industry itself for reform. Last month, the NTSB determined the probable cause of four recent fatal helicopter EMS crashes. Three of the four involved inadvertent flight into night instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), while one was attributed to loss of control during low and slow flight.
There is no “magic bullet” solution to the spate of fatal helicopter EMS crashes over the last two years.
Rather, investigation documents released by the NTSB on January 15 reveal a complex mosaic of multi-level human and technology failures behind nine of these crashes in 2007 and 2008.
Concerned by mounting losses in emergency medical services (EMS) flights, the NTSB has added the safety of such flights to its 2009 Most Wanted List of Safety Improvements.