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Another medical helicopter has crashed — this time in a small Missouri town. An Associated Press report suggests the helicopter lost an engine on take off and crashed at the landing zone in central Missouri. The AP report did not indicate the specific type of helicopter involved.

Many medical and life flight helicopters are a version of the Eurocopter, which has a history of mechanical malfunctions leading to crashes across the country and in other areas of the world.

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, 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.

Records from the National Transportation Safety Board ("NTSB") show there have been several Eurocopter AS350 crashes in recent years:

February 5, 2010: Three died when an AS350 medical helicopter crashed near El Paso, Texas.

November 14, 2009: Three people died when an AS350 medical helicopter crashed near Doyle, California. 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 29, 2009: An AS350 crash killed two and injured one when the engine lost power while descending near Loreto, Peru.

October 1, 2009: An AS350 crashed near Cusco, Peru killing all three on board.

February 5, 2009: An AS350 medical helicopter crashed near South Padre Island, Texas killing three on board.

Just last year the Wall Street Journal reported on a study found emergency medical helicopter pilots had the most dangerous job in the United States. Many hospitals use a version of the Eurocopter as an emergency medical helicopter. The FAA spokesman told the Wall Street Journal that only 40% of US helicopters had been voluntarily outfitted with collision-avoidance systems and only about 11% have data recorders.

Update [Dec. 27, 2010]

I ran across an interesting Popular Mechanics article from March of this year: Medical Helicopters Need Better Safety Standards — Now [Christopher Maag at Popular Mechanics]

According the report, medical helicopters have crashed 140 times since 1998, killing 140 people and injuring dozens more — the highest rate of fatal accidents in all of commercial aviation. 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.

(c) Copyright 2010 Brett A. Emison

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