NC Aviation Law Attorney

Are Medical Helicopter Safety Concerns Being Addressed?

Medical helicopter crashes make headline news, receiving a lot of attention from the media and from viewers.  Perhaps because we can all feel the depth of the tragedy knowing this helicopter was on a mission of mercy to save lives – yet crew members and patients lose their lives.

According to the NTSB, there were 85 helicopter-EMS (HEMS) accidents from 2003-2009 with 77 fatalities with 2008 being the deadliest year on record.  The question of the safety of helicopter medical evacuations has gotten the attention not only of the general public, but also aviation associations associated with the EMS industry and government agencies.

Great efforts throughout the EMS industry are working at trying to figure out the causes for these tragedies.  We know that a lot of EMS flights occur in less than perfect circumstances considering the terrain, weather, visibility.  We know using single pilot aircraft flying under visual flight rules is not the safest mode of operation, especially when that single pilot encounters un-forecast weather conditions, especially if that pilot is not IFR-certified.  

In the late 1990s and early 2000s with the growth of HEMS operations, the number of accidents began to increase also.  In January 2006, the NTSB completed a special investigation report on Emergency Medical Services Operations analyzing 55 EMS accidents (41 HEMS and 14 plane EMS) which occurred in the previous 3 years.  The Safety Board found 29 of the 55 reviewed accidents could have been prevented if corrective actions in the report had been implemented.  The recommendations called on the FAA to:

  • Conduct all flights with medical personnel on board in accordance with charter aircraft regulations.
  • Develop and implement flight risk evaluation programs.
  • Require formalized dispatch and flight-following procedures including up-to-date weather information.
  • Install Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (TAWS) on aircraft.

In October, 2008 these recommendations were added to the Safety Board’s Most Wanted List of Transportation Safety Improvements.  Three of these recommendations were reclassified as “Open-Unacceptable Response.”

Then came 2008 – our deadliest year on record. In February 2009 the National Transportation Safety Board held a hearing to probe these crashes and in turn to find what can be done to prevent them.  As of 2010, these recommendations have not been fully implemented by the FAA, although it did recently issue a Notice of proposed Rulemaking, which we consider to be a good start, but lacking.  See my October 20 blog for additional comments.

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