Last October near Chicago medical helicopter crashed killing three adults and a baby. The crash was the ninth fatal accident nationwide in an 11-month period, resulting in a total of 35 people killed.
Like others before it, the Chicago helicopter accident might have been prevented. The helicopter, which had clipped the support wire of a radio station tower while flying at night, lacked up-to-date safety equipment like a device to alert the pilot to towers and other nearby obstacles.
Yesterday, the National Transportation Safety Board began four days of hearings in Washington over concerns about the safety of the industry. There a safety review of the medical helicopter industry will be undertaken.
More than 800 medical helicopters are estimated to be operating in this country, airlifting the sick and injured, often under emergency conditions. In the last decade, the industry has doubled in size while undergoing a business transformation. Though annual revenues are estimated to exceed $2.5 billion, the industry is loosely regulated.
Hospitals used to be the primary operators of such helicopters, they now largely outsource that work to commercial operators, including some publicly traded companies like the Air Methods Corporation and PHI Inc. Safety experts contend that competition among companies for flights has added to the risks.
The NTSB sessions will bring together aviation experts, helicopter personnel and industry executives. Rather than focusing solely on the causes of accidents, the hearing will also consider the impact of the industry’s business structure on both air safety and medical care. But the board can only make recommendations to the Federal Aviation Administration, which regulates the flight safety of medical helicopters.
Safety advocates say necessary changes include tighter federal and state regulation, accusing the F.A.A. and the industry of being too slow to take specific steps to reduce the number of accidents.
After 18 people died in six crashes in 2004, the safety board urged the F.A.A. in 2006 to order companies to take four safety steps, which would include installing obstacle sensing systems and developing better weather reporting systems. Many accidents occur when pilots, often responding to emergencies, find themselves in deteriorating weather without adequate navigation technology to help them fly safely out of it.
They cite, for example, the so-called terrain awareness and avoidance systems that the safety board urged the F.A.A. to mandate in 2006. Such equipment combines a Global Positioning System with a worldwide database of terrain and obstacles like towers, tall buildings and construction cranes. Such warning systems were not aboard several medical helicopters that crashed last year, including the one that clipped the radio tower near Chicago.
Although the composition of the medical helicopter industry began to change a decade ago as the number of nonhospital operators began to grow, some experts say the pace of change and competition.
According to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, civilian medical helicopters have been a reality in Colorado since 1972. As of 2007, there are ten helicopters licensed to operate within the state, with two others available from adjacent states. All services are provided by private civilian agencies. For the time being, military resources are usually unavailable.