Lance Brabham, 12-03-07
Gaye McDowell
John Stumpff
Cameron Carter

Board cites poor weather in medical helicopter crashes

Anchorage Daily News, January 15th, 2009 Federal safety investigators say flying at night in poor weather and lack of preparation contributed to a 2007 medevac crash that killed four people near Whittier.

The National Transportation Safety Board released its probable-cause report on the Whittier accident today, with reports on three Lower 48 EMS helicopter crashes and information on five others. Together, 35 people were killed in nine EMS helicopter crashes since December 2007.

Poor weather was a factor in several of the crashes, the NTSB said. The board blamed a crash in Alabama on flying too low over trees as the EMS helicopter searched for a lost hunter. The pilot, a paramedic and a flight nurse were killed.

The Whittier crash in Dec. 3, 2007, involved a helicopter operated under contract for Providence Alaska Medical Center in Anchorage. It crashed into Prince William Sound three miles east of Whittier, in poor weather and visibility conditions. Of the four persons on board, only one body was recovered.

The Eurocopter Deutschland helicopter was operated by Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska Inc. and it was transporting a patient from Cordova to Anchorage when it crashed as part of the Lifeguard medevac service.

"While crossing over a portion of ocean approaching rising terrain, the helicopter likely encountered low ceilings and snow squalls. With the pilot unable to discern either the shore or the ocean, it is probable he flew the helicopter under control into the ocean," the new NTSB report said.

"The accident flight was the pilot's first flight from this clinic, and this was his first winter season flying in Alaska. He had expressed his concern to a mechanic prior to the flight about flying over the accident route and water at night, and also told the nurse to bring his night vision goggles (NVGs) to assist him in seeing terrain. The pilot also had NVGs. It is unknown what weather information the pilot had when he elected to accept the flight. He had access to a company computer, and he and other company pilots routinely did their preflight weather planning using it. There is no record that he received any preflight weather briefing from the FAA, nor contacted them for weather information prior to his departure from the clinic, or sought weather updates while en route," the report says.

"The hospital's procedure was to call the assigned EMS pilot to request a flight, and the pilot made the decision to either accept or reject the flight. Company procedures required that the pilot complete a risk assessment form prior to taking a flight. There was no risk assessment form found for the accident flight, and company management could not locate other risk assessment forms for previous EMS flights. An exemplar risk assessment form was completed by the NTSB investigator-in-charge using information that the pilot could reasonably expect to have known prior to accepting the flight. That information equated to a 'Moderate' risk level, and required company management's concurrence to authorize the flight. Company management was not notified. The pilot was required to phone the hospital communications center at 10-minute intervals via satellite phone while en route, and when he did not call at the required time, a search was initiated."

The report concludes that with a formalized dispatch and flight-following process, "it is probable the helicopter would have been turned around/canceled" before entering the bad weather, or that "due to the noncritical nature of the patient, the patient could have waited until an airplane was available that was capable of flying in IMC." IMC refers to instrument conditions, or times when the pilot should be using the aircraft's instruments rather than visual flight rules, which was the case with this helicopter flight, according to the NTSB report.

Killed in the crash were pilot Lance Brabham, 42, of Soldotna; Gaye McDowell, 60, of Cordova, the patient being transported; John Stumpff, 47 of Sterling, a nurse; and Cameron Carter, 24 of Kenai and the Butte, a paramedic.