Oklahoma City crash is fourth serious HEMS crash in three months
by Elan Head
An EagleMed emergency medical services helicopter crashed in Oklahoma City, Okla. early Friday morning, killing two people and critically injuring a third.
According to various news reports, the Eurocopter AS350 helicopter crashed around 5:40 a.m. near a nursing home in northwest Oklahoma City. Fire Deputy Chief Marc Woodward told the newspaper The Oklahoman that all victims were Eagle Med flight crew.
Although low ceilings and mist had been reported in the area the previous day, the weather was apparently clear at the time of the crash, with nearby Wiley Post Airport reporting a ceiling of at least 12,000 feet above ground level, visibility greater than 10 miles, and a temperature of -6.7 degrees Celsius (20 degrees Fahrenheit).
Based in Wichita, Kan., EagleMed is a privately owned and operated critical care air medical service provider that operates a fleet of AS350 helicopters and Beechcraft King Air airplanes across the Midwestern United States. At the time of this publication, it had not yet issued a statement on the crash. EagleMed suffered a previous fatal accident in July 2010, when an AS350 B2 crashed near Kingfisher, Okla., killing the pilot and flight nurse on board, and seriously injuring a flight nurse paramedic.
The Oklahoma City accident marks the fourth serious crash for the U.S. helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) sector in less than three months. The string of recent accidents began on Dec. 10, 2012, when an MBB BK117 operated by Air Methods Corporation for Rockford Memorial Hospital impacted the ground near Compton, Ill. while on a positioning flight, killing the pilot, flight nurse and paramedic on board.
On Jan. 2, 2013, a Eurocopter EC130 B4 also operated by Air Methods for Oklahoma University Medical Center made a hard landing near Seminole, Okla. that seriously injured the pilot and three crewmembers. And, later that day, a Bell 407 operated by Med-Trans Corporation for Mercy Medical Center impacted terrain near Clear Lake, Iowa, killing the pilot and two crewmembers. (Another Bell 407 operated by Med-Trans made a hard landing near Big Lake, Texas on Dec. 29, 2012, but the three crewmembers and one passenger on board were not injured.)
Although investigations are ongoing, the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has issued preliminary reports for each of these earlier accidents. Loss of engine power appears to have been the cause of the Dec. 29 and Jan. 2 hard landings. Weather appears to have been a critical factor in each of the fatal accidents, both of which occurred after dark. In the December accident in Illinois, the pilots last radio communication was to alert his dispatch center that he was aborting the flight due to weather conditions encountered. In the January accident in Iowa, the NTSBs preliminary report focuses heavily on reports by ground witnesses of icing conditions, including a comment by a pilot who had encountered light rime icing while flying into the area two-and-a-half hours earlier.
The accidents have restored public scrutiny to a sector that had faded from the spotlight since 2009, when the NTSB convened public hearings to address its disturbing accident record including 28 fatalities related to HEMS crashes in 2008 alone.
The sector kept the attention of the mainstream media through September 2009, when the NTSB released a number of safety recommendations related to HEMS operations, and made headline news again in October 2010, when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began a rulemaking process to address the NTSBs recommendations and other safety concerns. As the HEMS accident rate appeared to stabilize, however, the media spotlight gradually shifted elsewhere.
Now there are renewed calls for stricter regulation of the HEMS sector. In an op-ed published in the Rockford Register Star in late December, former NTSB chairman Jim Hall wrote, It is unclear to me why the FAA continually puts off taking significant steps to improve the safety of EMS helicopters. . . . Making these improvements to the helicopter EMS industry will bring better service and save the lives of people who are trying to do the same for their patients.
Indeed, the FAA has been moving slowly on its final rule for HEMS operators. Public comment on the rule closed in January 2011, and publication of a final rule was originally scheduled for May 2012. However, the final rule is still under review, with publication now projected for March 29, 2013. Additional coordination necessary is the explanation given for the delay in the Department of Transportations January 2013 status report on significant rulemakings. An FAA spokesman did not provide Vertical with further details beyond the statement, Were still working on it.
While the FAA continues to grind its way through the rulemaking process, the HEMS sector is doing some soul-searching of its own. A decline in HEMS accidents after 2010 led many to believe that industry-led safety initiatives, such as the increased use of safety-enhancing technology and risk matrices, were having the desired effect. The latest spate of accidents is prompting a hard look at where those initiatives are succeeding and where theyre falling down.
Jonathan Godfrey, chairman of the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS) Vision Zero HEMS safety initiative, warns that the industry may still be too complacent. In January, he told Vertical, I still fear were in a position to repeat some of the same accidents because I dont see a significant amount of change. On Friday, he said the most recent crash in Oklahoma City should remind the HEMS industry to bring an increased level of vigilance and professionalism to its operations. Who in the industry hasnt said that they love to fly and they love their job? he said. But sometimes I think this love we have is like an adolescents first love it can drive us to make bad decisions. We need to fall out of love with aviation and start being professionals.