Lance Brabham, 12-03-07
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.