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Single-Piloted Night Medical Helicopter Operations Ought to be Prohibited

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Last night, a SkyLife air ambulance medical helicopter carrying a patient to a hospital crashed in the California San Joaquin Valley. The crew encountered heavy rain and fog. Having flown medical evacuation in combat and bad weather, 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.” (“’Weather’ or Not to Press,” Approach, July 2006.) 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 hazards must be overcome when every second counts to save a patient fighting for his or her life.

Last night’s flight was a varsity event, and early reports suggest that the crew was a seasoned one. However, the crew was composed of only 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. I’ve experienced spatial disorientation flying in bad weather at night, and thankfully the other pilot was there to take controls and vice-versa.

Virtually across the board, US-based medical 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? Proper risk mitigation necessitates that night medical flights be multi-piloted and flown with night vision devices to the maximum extent possible. Flying medical helicopters single piloted at night exposes patients and flight crews to needless danger. This unsafe practice needs to cease immediately.

Tragically, patients, flight crews, 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