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Medical Flights Raise Questions After Sixth Crash Since May

Posted by Chrissie Cole
Wednesday, July 02, 2008 1:57 AM EST
Category: On The Road
Tags: Federal Aviation Administration, Medical Helicopters, NTSB


IMAGE SOURCE: iStockphoto/ Air Evac / author: © MarcoCoda

Two medical helicopters on their final approach to a hospital in Flagstaff, Arizona, collided on Sunday, killing six and seriously injury one. This was the sixth crash involving emergency helicopters since May.

Sixteen people have died this year in seven crashes, involving eight helicopters, according to National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) officials.

Twice as many medical helicopters currently operate in this country, as they did a decade ago, at nearly 800, according to the Association of Air Medical Services.

Crashes that involve medical aircraft have been increasing in nature since the 1990’s for several different reasons, according to experts. It’s an increasingly popular industry, fueled by the closure of emergency rooms in rural areas and aging populations, according to the National EMS Pilots Association.

One of approximately every 50 medical helicopters in the U.S. fleet from 2002 to 2005 was involved in a crash, according to a report by the Congressional Research Service. That is a far deadlier rate than that of the U.S. Airline Industry.

The report also included NTSB statistics that cited the accident rates for emergency medical helicopters has increased from 3.52 accidents per 100,000 flight hours between 1992 and 2001 to 4.56 accidents per 100,000 flight hours between 1997 and 2001.

In 2006, the NTSB found operators failed to develop detailed flight risk programs, and pilots often did not have the proper information regarding bad weather they may have encountered or the equipment necessary to alert them in such instances.

The board called for stricter flight rules and improved safety equipment along with other recommendations. While the Federal Aviation Administration accepted all of the board’s recommendations, they have only put some of them in place.

Several industry critics question whether companies eager to profit from flights are sending helicopters to pick up patients that could have been transported for less cost and less risk by ground ambulance.

Industry officials are trying to piece together the puzzle from the recent crashes because there does not appear to be a common thread. Some of the crashes occurred at night while others happened during the day; some were in harsh weather, while some were in sunny skies.

Just two days earlier, a medical helicopter crashed 30 miles outside Prescott Arizona, injuring three crew members. In early June, four people were killed when a medical helicopter crashed near Huntsville, Texas.

In May, three people were killed when a medical chopper crashed near La Crosse, Wisconsin and another three were killed in a crash, in February, in Texas.

In 2006, there were 13 accidents and 10 deaths involving air ambulances. Last year there were 14 accidents that resulted in 24 deaths. #

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