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Brett Emison
Brett Emison
Attorney • (866) 735-1102 Ext 461

Medical Helicopter Crashes: Worth The Risk?

9 comments

Eurocopter AS 350 medical air ambulance helicopters have long crash historyMedical helicopters around the country save lives every day. However, there have been a substantial number of medical helicopter crashes. The most recent crash, in Mosby, Missouri, killed four and again raises questions about the safety of these helicopters.

Eurocopter helicopters – including the AS350 and EC135 models – account for many of these tragic crashes. The six-seat Eurocopter EC135 has a history of mid-air malfunctions and a lack of critical safety features. In 2007, the FAA issued an Emergency Airworthiness Directive for all Eurocopter Model EC135 helicopters. The European Safety Agency (EASA) notified the FAA that an unsafe condition may exist on Eurocopter EC135 and EC635 helicopters involving the failure of a tail rotor control rod. Failure of the rod would cause subsequent loss of control of the helicopter.

In October 2010, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) issued a Safety Recommendation regarding a design defect on the Eurocopter AS350 (Rec# A-10-129 and -130), which could cause an inadvertent loss of engine power or engine overspeed. A critical control device is located where it can be inadvertently moved by either the pilot or a passenger resulting in a crash.

Medical helicopters are critical safety devices that are the last best hope for many who are critically injured in rural or hard-to-access areas. The pilots, EMTs, paramedics, nurses and doctors who operate on these helicopters are among the bravest among us. We owe it to the flight crews and the patients to ensure these aircraft are free of defects and have critical safety devices.

Christopher Maag of Popular Mechanics agrees and advocates for better medical helicopter safety in his article Medical Helicopters Need Better Safety Standards – Now.

Helicopter ambulances have crashed 149 times since 1998, killing 140 people and seriously injuring dozens more. And industry created to save lives actually has the highest rate of fatal accidents in all of commercial aviation. In fact, working on board a medical helicopter is the most dangerous profession in America, with a higher risk of death than fishermen, steel workers or loggers.

It is too early to know what caused the most recent helicopter crash is Mosby, Mo, though according to CBS News, a witness reported that he "heard [the helicopter] fly over head and it did not sound good." The witness compared the engine noise to a car misfiring.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has reported a number of AS350 helicopter crashes in past two years:

July 22, 2010 – Eurocopter AS 350 B2 medical helicopter crashed near Kingfisher, Oklahoma killing two and injuring another.

March 25, 2010 – Eurocopter AS 350 B3 medical helicopter crashed near Brownsville, TN killing three on board.

February 14, 2010 – Eurocopter EC 135 T1 crashed near Cave Creek, AZ killing five on board.

February 5, 2010: Eurocopter AS 350 B2 medical helicopter crashed near El Paso, Texas, killing three.

November 14, 2009: Eurocopter AS 350 BA medical helicopter crashed near Doyle, California, killing three people. Witnesses reported seeing the helicopter flying straight and level and then suddenly descend vertically at a rapid rate. Witnesses lost sight of the aircraft and then observed a fireball.

October 1, 2009: Eurocopter AS 350 B3 crashed near Cusco, Peru killing all three on board.

October 29, 2009: Eurocopter AS 350 B2 crash killed two and injured one when the engine lost power while descending near Loreto, Peru.

Because of the high number of medical helicopter crashes, the FAA in 2009 finally announced it would issue rules for the medical helicopter industry. According to Popular Mechanics, the first rule should require all air ambulances to be equipped with night vision goggles. Popular Mechanics‘ recommended rules:

  • Night vision goggles for air ambulance pilots
  • Terrain Awareness Systems (mandatory on airliners)
  • Flight data recorders
  • FAA should "get serious about the weather" by building more weather stations to track low-altitude storm systems and requiring air ambulance operators to have a flight control center where qualified dispatchers help pilots decide if it is safe to fly.

Read More:

[More on Helicopter Safety]

(c) Copyright 2011 Brett A. Emison

PS: The last time I wrote about helicopter safety, there was a spirited conversation generated over at http://justhelicopters.com. Should this post similarly spark a similar interest, I encourage thoughtful and civil comments here.

9 Comments

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  1. Jeff says:
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    Since you are an attorney, it appears that you are encouraging litigation on this accident and you are attempting to enrich yourself over this and other helicopter accidents. I thought that was considered unethical and grounds for disbarment. I think you need to cool your thrusters before you are called on some of your statements and loose you ability to make a living as an attorney. If I were a Eurocopter attorney that is what I would suggest if you were in court with me.

  2. Matthew says:
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    Jeff,

    My father was killed in the helicopter crash referenced above near El Paso, TX 2-5-10. You might feel differently if you suffered the same loss. He was a flight paramedic doing his job saving peoples lives.

  3. Mike Bryant says:
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    This is a very troubling trend and it seems way out of line with other flight comparisons. These flights have helped so many of my clients, I really hope we see less of these crashes.

  4. Brett Emison says:
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    Jeff,

    Thanks for reading and offering your comment. I’ve received comments like yours from time to time, so let me try to clear up some misconceptions.

    I am an attorney. It says that at the top of the page just below my photo. However, when I write posts like this one, I’m not “encouraging litigation” and I’m certainly not soliciting business “attempting to enrich myself”.

    I am simply offering a commentary on a long series of problems for Eurocopter documented by the FAA, the NTSB, and even Popular Mechanics.

    I write on subjects of safety, on subjects that interest me, and yes, sometimes I write on subjects with which I am familiar because of my profession.

    Your comment suggests that I have included inaccuracies in my post. I am not so close-minded that I believe it is impossible to have made a mistake. If so, please identify the inaccuracies so they can be corrected.

    To that end, I try to be as accurate as possible when I write. In fact, I try to always show my work when I write. For example, in this post, I have provided source link citation for every factual statement offered, including links to the investigation reports by the NTSB.

    I am sure Eurocopter attorneys have much more to concern themselves with than me. As documented by Popular Mechanics, there have been more than 150 medical helicopter crashes since 1998 destroying more than 140 families.

    As Matthew can attest, we should be more concerned about those families (and preventing similar tragedies for more families) than what Eurocopter thinks about what I write.

    Thanks again for reading and taking the time to comment. I always have encouraged civil and spirited debate.

  5. Brett Emison says:
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    Matthew – thank you for reading and taking the time to comment. It is always a tragedy when someone loses his life saving others. I am very sorry for your loss.

  6. Tim says:
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    My heart goes out to all the family & colleges. I have been an aircraft mechanic for years & am new to the Helicopter EMS operation. I can assure that safety is the #1 priority in the company I work for. These helicopters are inspected daily & nearly every component has what they call an operational life limit. These components are required to be changed according to what the manufacturer requires. Unfortunately, these are mechanical machines & humans are still the operators. Parts can fail & pilot’s can make mistakes. We all do our best to try & prevent these things from happening, but the reality is, things can go wrong no matter what you do to try & prevent it. I get very upset with people pointing fingers when an ACCIDENT happens. We need to pick up the pieces, pray for all involved parties & move on. I am sorry for anyone who has lost a loved one in an accident. Your loss does not make this a reckless, mismanaged, unsafe operation.

  7. Matthew says:
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    Just to make sure I understand correctly Tim. It’s perfectly normal for the helicopters to plunge through the air, burst into flames and burn everyone inside? Oh, that’s right that’s not possible from a business that isn’t reckless, mismanaged, or unsafe…. Right!

  8. Jeff says:
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    To Matthew and Brett,
    Matthew I’m sorry for your loss. The mechanic that worked on that aircraft wakes every day wandering what he could have done to change the outcome of that day. I have been in his shoes for 27 years. I think of the people that were on that helicopter every day and think of all the days they lost that day. Just like Tim stated, sometimes it is the machine, sometimes it is human error. It is always a tragedy.

    I have been a mechanic in the helicopter aviation industry for over thirty years. I have known more people that died in helicopter accidents than any other form of death, combined. I have worked on Bell, Eurocopter France (Aerospatiale) and Eurocopter Deutschland (MBB) for the majority of that time. Eurocopter has it’s problems. All companies do. Yes they could fix a lot of those problems if they chose to.

    I believe that most “accidents” could have been prevented and most “accidents” are a result of human error not the machine. Most “accidents” go back to having people make mistakes, push limits, and allow pressure to make decisions for them. EMS operations are subject to those types of mistakes by their very nature.

    We don’t need more rules and we don’t need pressure from the legal system. What is needed is for the people in the system to say “No” if things are not right. NO, is a complete sentence and it means what it says. Leaving an aircraft on the ground may cost money and it may even cause problems for the individual that is in need of help. But sending three people out in an aircraft when conditions are less that correct could put all four in danger. It is not worth it.

  9. chris says:
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    Jeff, good points all! I have been in the Paramedics Seat for a company that put Safety First competing against those that did not. My mechanic went on every check-ride after he wrenched anything. Sadly, human error is usually the cause and the atmosphere should change! The machines are not failing us (usually) we are failing to make good decisions.