Medevac helicopters collide over Arizona

 - July 30, 2008, 9:46 AM

Neither of the two medevac Bell 407s that collided in midair June 29 over Flagstaff, Ariz., was equipped with TCAS or any kind of cockpit voice or data recorder, an NTSB spokesman told AIN. However, data from the engine control units (ECUs) and satellite GPS receivers on board both aircraft, an Outerlink satellite tracking system on one of the helicopters and a ground-based surveillance camera at the Flagstaff Medical Center are providing investigators with valuable clues about what happened.

Meanwhile, the crash has led at least one industry group to call for tighter rules governing medevac operations, re-ignited the debate about the necessity of a large percentage of medevac flights, and could prompt increased NTSB scrutiny of the sector. Safety Board chairman Mark Rosenker last month called the latest spate of medevac crashes “disturbing,” and NTSB public relations people used the crash as an opportunity to re-circulate the Board’s 2006 recommendations, which include the study of expanded minimum equipment lists and tighter operating rules for medevac aircraft.

The clues from this latest crash appear bountiful but will require further study. Video from the hospital parking lot camera, located a quarter mile from the crash, shows the collision in real time; however, the helicopters are obscured by a time-date stamp that can be electronically removed. Investigators are attempting to enhance the videotape at the NTSB lab in Washington and might send the tape to the FBI for more detailed analysis.

The ECU should be able to provide data such as altitude, throttle position, torque and engine speeds; the GPS could establish location, groundspeed, flight path and time.
Paint scrapings on the blades recovered at the crash scene suggest one helicopter’s main rotors struck the underside of the tail boom of the other.

Both 407s were en route to the Flagstaff Medical Center when they collided in uncontrolled airspace less than half a mile east of the hospital’s rooftop heliport at 3:45 p.m., killing six, including the pilots and patients on both helicopters. One flight nurse survived the crash but died later. Two first responders received minor burns while attempting to extricate the crash victims when one of the 407s had a secondary explosion on the ground. The main wreckage of each machine hit the ground approximately 325 feet apart, and both helicopters were destroyed
by post-crash fires that ignited a swiftly extinguished 15-acre brush fire, according to the NTSB.

Weather at the time of the crash was described as VMC with a few high clouds. An NTSB spokesman told AIN that the Safety Board could not confirm the precise altitudes or exact headings of the 407s at the time of the collision or whether the pilots of the two helicopters were in voice communication with each other before the crash. But one helicopter was approaching from the south and the other from the north. The crash site is located outside Flagstaff’s class-D airspace in an area without ground-based radar coverage.

The 1998- and 1996-vintage 407s were both being flown VFR single-pilot. N407GA was being operated by Englewood, Colo.-based Air Methods for the Flagstaff Medical Center’s Guardian Air. N407MJ was operated by Utah-based Classic Helicopters for Classic Lifeguard Aeromedical Services in Page, Ariz.

The NTSB said the Air Methods helicopter was heading north from Flagstaff Pulliam Airport (KFLG), three miles away. It had dropped off one of two flight nurses aboard, apparently because the pilot was concerned about load and density altitude issues heading into the hospital’s helipad. The flight had originated in Winslow. Temperature at the time of the crash was reported as 87 degrees F. Elevation at KLFG is 7,015 feet. The 407 has a maximum useful load of 2,347 pounds (sea level), a fuel capacity of 824 pounds and a maximum cruise speed of 133 knots. The single Rolls-Royce 250-C47B turbine engine is rated at 704 shp max continuous.

The Classic 407 was inbound from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon with four aboard.

The rooftop helipad at Flagstaff Medical Center is open on three sides and can accommodate two helicopters–one on the landing pad itself and the other on an adjacent parking pad, according to Jeffrey Wright of Heliplanners, the California company that designed it. The hospital structure is located to the north of the pad, Wright said, and KFLG is located to the southwest.

The helicopters collided over Switzer Mesa. Eyewitness reports said the Air Methods helicopter exploded in midair immediately after the collision, dropped straight down to the mesa and then exploded again as rescue workers approached. The Classic helicopter assumed a nose-down attitude and crashed down the side of a steep wooded area.

A Spate of Accidents
It was the second medevac crash in Arizona in just two days and the second fatal crash for Air Methods in six weeks. On June 27, an Air-Evac Eurocopter AS 350B3 operated by Petroleum Helicopters was en route to pick up a patient when it made a hard landing in an obscured landing zone. The helicopter was destroyed and the medical crew seriously injured.

On May 10, a Eurocopter EC 135T2+ operated by Air Methods for the University of Wisconsin UW-MedFlight program crashed in an area of rapidly rising terrain near La Crosse, Wis., during a night Part 91 positioning flight, killing all three aboard.

The June 29 crash was the first fatality for Classic, according to a company spokesman.

The pilots of the helicopters involved in the June 29 crash were characterized as high-time and experienced and identified as Pat Graham, 51, of Air Methods,
and Tom Caldwell, 54, of Classic. Graham joined the Guardian Air program in 2003 and had approximately 5,300 hours flight time. Caldwell had more than 10,000 hours total time, according to a Classic Helicopters spokesman.

The midair is the ninth crash of a medevac helicopter in the U.S. this year, and the third midair between two civil helicopters in the U.S. Last summer two Eurocopter AS 350B2s, operated for Phoenix television stations, collided while covering a high-speed car chase.

EMS helicopter traffic into Flagstaff Medical Center is heavy due to its proximity to Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon, especially during summer vacation months. “Flagstaff is the largest medical center of its kind. If a patient in the northern part of the state needs any kind of trauma work, they’re coming here,” a longtime resident told AIN.

Neither 407 was equipped with TCAS and Bell does not offer it as a factory option due to its incompatibility with standard factory instrument panel displays, according to a company spokesman. However, several modification centers offer it as a retrofit option, often in conjunction with other avionics upgrades. The price for a typical installation of a first-generation TCAS, such as L-3’s SkyWatch, is $20,000 to $30,000 when done with either Chelton displays or the Garmin 5000 system, according to 407 operators interviewed by AIN. “I can’t imagine flying without it,” said John Kjekstad, whose Helicopter Flight Services operates 407s in New York. “It is very effective, even below 1,000 agl,” Kjekstad said.

Citing the Flagstaff and other recent helicopter EMS crashes, the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS) again voiced support for U.S. House legislation that would reform air ambulance practices and mandate the study of installing cockpit voice and data recording devices aboard all rotary- and fixed-wing EMS aircraft. H.R. 3939 was introduced on October 23 last year and referred to the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. Among other things, it would mandate that all medical flights be conducted under FAR Part 135 charter rules when medical crewmembers are aboard. In a statement, AAMS said, “This bill would make the necessary, practical regulatory and other changes within the air medical community to promote a safe transport environment for both patients and air medical crews while continuing to provide desperately needed air medical transport to the critically ill and injured.”

A spokesman for AAMS told AIN that, to date, little progress had been made on the bill due to a lack of companion legislation in the Senate and Congressional inertia on the larger FAA reauthorization bill. However, he said that the recent rash of EMS crashes could kindle intensified Congressional interest.

The number of EMS helicopters in the United States has doubled since 2002, from 400 to 800, and nearly one in 50 was involved in an accident between 2002 and 2005, according to the Congressional Research Service.