Are Medical Flights by Plane or Helicopter Riskier Than They Should Be?
By Dean I Weitzman, Esq. on November 29th, 2011
An elderly Florida medical patient and his wife died earlier this week when the small plane carrying them had engine trouble and crashed near Chicago. The 80-year-old man was being treated for an illness on the medical flight and was accompanied by a flight paramedic and two pilots, according to a story in The Chicago Tribune.
The plane was carrying the couple back to Chicago so he could continue his medical treatment while being with relatives, but the aircraft went down after a fuel problem was reported by the pilot, according to the paper.
Fatal accidents involving medical flights are not an uncommon occurrence in the United States, based on news stories and government accident reports.
In August, three medical helicopter crew members and a patient died near Kansas City, Mo., when the air ambulance crashed, according to a story on CBSNews.com. An investigation into the crash is continuing.
In July of 2010, three members of a medical helicopter crew died in Tucson, Ariz., when their state-of-the-art vehicle crashed on a return flight to their base, according to a story on KVOA.com.
A series of stories in The Washington Post in 2009, “Fatal Flights: A Perilous Rush To Profit,” identified the job of working on a medical helicopter as the second most dangerous job in the nation, behind only commercial fishing.
“The number of fatal flights has risen sharply, closely tracking the rapid growth of what is now a $2.5 billion industry,” reported the Washington Post in the series. “Nearly half of all deaths have occurred in the past decade. In 2008, the deadliest year ever, 23 crew members and five patients were killed. Some calamities were the result of pilot errors. But many were predictable, pilots and safety experts say, and could have been prevented with stronger oversight and better technology.”
A story in Popular Mechanics magazine in July 2010 deeply criticized the safety record of medical helicopter flights in this country, arguing that most of the vehicles don’t carry the same critical safety equipment that’s required on other types of commercial aircraft. “The majority have no autopilot system or co-pilot to assist the pilot in emergencies,” the story reported. “Medical helicopters are not required to have terrain awareness and warning systems, night-vision goggles, flight data recorders, detailed weather reporting or ground personnel in charge of flight dispatch and in-flight tracking.”
These kinds of tragedies shouldn’t be happening today, especially with the rich variety of technologies that can add safety to these kinds of emergency flights.
When a medical airplane or helicopter crashes, it leaves a wake of legal issues for its victims, from the patients who are being carried, to the crews that are providing the patient care and flying the aircraft, to anyone who might be hurt on the ground. Then of course there are the family members and survivors of anyone who is injured or dies due to such crashes.
These accidents are made more tragic because of the work that these crews perform – they are there to save lives, yet tragically can cause the deaths of the people they are trying to help.
Safety improvements are needed to ensure that medical helicopters and other aircraft used for medical flights get the safety equipment and features that can make such accidents far less likely.
“Helicopter ambulances have crashed 149 times since 1998, killing 140 people and seriously injuring dozens more,” according to news analysis story in Popular Mechanics in March, 2010. “An industry created to save lives actually has the highest rate of fatal accidents in all of commercial aviation. In fact, working onboard a medical helicopter is the most dangerous profession in America, with a higher risk of death than fishermen, steel workers or loggers.”
The biggest problem, the story reported, is the dearth of safety standards for such flights. Since then, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) finally began a “years-long process of writing mandatory rules for the medical helicopter industry,” the story says. Among the features that are needed for safety are night vision goggles so air crews can see their flying conditions better in the darkness, according to the magazine. Also needed are Terrain Awareness Systems, which are already required in commercial aircraft, so that flight crews can get warnings when they are too close to the ground in poor weather conditions.
Lastly, the story said, the FAA should require medical helicopters to have flight data recorders so that data can be recorded and dissected in the event of a crash and improved weather data availability for air ambulance crews to keep them safer.
Patients and air ambulance crews shouldn’t have to worry about becoming statistics when the aircraft that carry them leave the ground.
It’s time that these safety issues are rectified for good.
If you or someone you love is injured in such an accident, be sure to speak with a competent, caring and compassionate attorney to learn about your legal rights and responsibilities.
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