A fatal helicopter crash that occurred 30 miles south of Rockford on Monday night has raised questions on the safety of helicopters, reports the Chicago Tribune. The fatal accident claimed the lives of the pilot and two nurses while they were heading back to Rockford community hospital after aborting their planned flight to Mendota Community Hospital because of deteriorating weather conditions. Bad weather is the most common cause of all aviation accidents, and the National Weather Service reported light snow and sleet that day.
After this accident, the National Transportation Safety Board (“NTSB”) is pressuring the Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) to mandate safety improvements for the oft-dangerous air ambulance industry. The current system is voluntary compliance; an FAA strategy that critics say is not effective enough. For example, there are broad inconsistencies in pilot training; safety-related communications and navigation equipment aboard medical helicopters are handled by independent operators hired mostly by hospitals, who may not have sufficient training. In fact, the job of helicopter emergency crewmember ranks as the highest-risk occupation based upon death rates, beating out deep-sea fisherman, and logger as well as nine other hazardous jobs according to a study conducted a few years ago by Dr. Ira Blumen of the University of Chicago Hospitals.
Emergency medical helicopter pilots often make decisions about weather conditions while in the middle of a flight, and because most of their trips involve life or death situations, many pilots choose to continue their trips even though weather conditions are dangerous. Stricter safety mandates by the FAA could decrease such dangerous decisions by these courageous helicopter pilots. The NTSB has made over 50 recommendations to government and the air ambulance industry since 1988, but so far they have fallen on deaf ears. However the FAA may eventually be forced to act on this issue as the air ambulance industry continues to grow dramatically and the fatalities are beginning to mount. The NTSB reports at least 110 emergency medical helicopter crashes, with over 105 fatalities from 2003 through July of this year. In 2008 alone 29 people died in 13 accidents. The FAA recommends that operators should take advantage of digital data programs that help predict weather patterns so that they will make more informed decisions about whether to fly during adverse weather conditions. On the other hand, the NTSB recommends the use of flight simulators, night-vision imaging systems and autopilot technology on the medical helicopters. However, very few of these have been officially adopted by the FAA.