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Flight-for-Life: dangerous for pilots, crew, and passengers

Flying emergency medical service helicopters is dangerous. Having flown medical evacuation in combat, I can attest to the pressure, chaos, and uncertainty involved in getting to the point of injury and airlifting a critically injured person to a medical center within the “golden hour.” I’ve lost a few friends who died flying or air-crewing these types of flights. Some of the dangers include rapidly degrading weather and visibility, unmarked obstacles, power lines, and challenging steep approaches and landings to confined areas. All of these hazardous must be overcome when every second counts to save a patient fighting for his or her life.

Not unexpectedly, there have been six fatal air ambulance mishaps in the past year. The most recent tragedy occurred on July 3rd in Frisco, Colorado where the Airbus AS350 helicopter crashed shortly after takeoff. The pilot was killed, and both the flight paramedic and flight nurse were badly injured. On April 27, 2015, a flight nurse fell to her death while attempting to hoist a patient up into the STAR Flight helicopter. A month earlier, there were two flight-for-life crashes, one in Oklahoma on March 12th, and the other in St. Louis, Missouri on March 6th. Both of these crashes happened at night with apparently marginal visual flight rules weather conditions. Another medical helicopter crashed at night on October 4th, 2014 in Wichita Falls, TX. The last of the six fatal crashes was on July 17, 2014 in New Mexico. There, the pilot was attempting a difficult night pinnacle landing to pick up a patient on a hilltop.

None of these crashes involved a routine flight. Yet, in every case, the crew was composed of one pilot and two medical crew members. When I flew medevac, or casevac as we refer to the mission in the Marine Corps, we had two pilots, two aerial observers/crew chiefs, and two medical crew. Why the redundancy in flight-related crew for a medical flight? Because eight eyes are better than two, and four brains are better than one. When you fly in bad weather, under intense time pressure and uncertainty, and often times with a minimal power margin for expert-level landings, one pilot is not enough.

However, virtually across the board, US-based EMS helicopter operations use a three-person crew with one pilot and no dedicated aerial observer. These pilots are predominately scheduled in a standby status, meaning they only fly if there is an actual EMS call. As a result, the pilots DO fly enough to maintain currency to sign as pilot in command as required by federal aviation regulations, but do they fly enough to maintain proficiency? Pilots need regularly scheduled training and proficiency flights/simulated flights. Are these pilots flying enough to be proficient in the most challenging of circumstances?

Tragically, flight crew, and/or their families, can encounter unjust legal hurdles when seeking justice after a crash or fatal event. Flight crew, patients, and their families do have several legal options. At Bailey & Partners we leave no stone unturned when finding liability and getting maximum compensation for the injured persons and family members we represent.

By: F. Phillip Peche, attorney @ Bailey & Partners

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