U.S. industry leaders, accident investigators and regulators are debating whether additional steps should be taken to improve air ambulance safety in the wake of a midair collision that killed five crewmembers and two patients.
The June 29 collision of two Bell Helicopter 407s on approach to Arizona’s Flagstaff Medical Center stunned industry leaders. They had closed 2007 optimistic that increased attention to the safety of helicopter EMS operations had in fact started to reduce a persistent accident rate in that sector. But starting in late April EMS accidents appeared to be returning to a rate of about a fatal accident a month. The midair was a frightening reminder that much needs to be done to improve EMS safety. At press time, the Assn of Air Medical Services was planning an emergency summit of industry leaders before the end of July to begin discussing what those steps might be.
The midair occurred at about 4 p.m. local time during clear VFR weather. The pilots for Classic Helicopters and Air Methods each had flown into the medical center "numerous times," according to an official involved in the investigation led by the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board.
Each of the aircraft was heavily damaged post-collision, the Air Methods one by a post-crash fire and the Classic by subsequent impact in heavily wooded terrain. Despite that damage, investigators found evidence of main rotor blade strike marks on the underside of the Classic 407’s tail boom. Investigators were culling numerous sources of data on each aircraft’s operation in the moments before they crashed into each other. Those sources include the memory chips of the engine control unit from each aircraft’s Rolls-Royce Model 250, transcripts of communications with each operator’s dispatch center, emergency response dispatch centers and the medical center, and a video recording from a security camera on the medical center’s parking facility.