A Maryland State Police Eurocopter AS365N Dauphin on a medical transport mission crashed two nm north of Andrews AFB (ADW) in suburban Washington, D.C. killing four aboard and leaving one in critical condition. While only the second helicopter fatality since the unit’s start-up in 1970 — the first occurring in 1986 when two crewmembers were killed in low-visibility conditions aboard a Bell 206B — critics of MSP’s aviation program say the latest crash adds credence to the results of a recent audit that found maintenance and management problems within the operation.
On September 27, 2008 at approximately 11:00 p.m., retired MSP trooper turned civilian pilot Stephen Bunker, 59, and flight paramedic Trooper 1st Class Mickey Lippy, 34, responded from their hangar at Andrews AFB to an automobile accident in Waldorf, Md. where they picked up victim Jordan Wells, 18, and her friend Ashley Younger, 17. Volunteer emergency medical technician Tonya Mallard, 39, also came aboard to help tend to the victims.
The aircraft, call sign "Trooper-2," flew to the trauma center at Prince George’s Hospital just outside of Washington, but aborted the landing, presumably because the rooftop helipad was obscured by clouds and mist. Radio transmissions reveal Bunker contacted air traffic control with a request to divert to ADW, which is 11 nm southeast of the hospital and, at the time, was reporting conditions well below visual flight rule minimums.
Sources close to the investigation told R&W that Bunker initially requested an IFR approach to runway 19L — the runway closest to Trooper-2’s hangar — but was told to make his approach to runway 19R instead. Shortly after acknowledging the instructions, however, sources say Bunker amended his request to an airport surveillance radar approach procedure, where ATC uses radar information to guide the pilot down to the runway.
Controllers lost radar contact with Trooper-2 before it was fully established on the final approach course. A search was launched shortly thereafter when Bunker did not respond to further radio calls.
Poor weather conditions prohibited an airborne search for Trooper-2, delaying the discovery of the wreckage in a densely wooded park two nm north and slightly east of the extended centerline of runway 19R. Poor visibility, light rain and the absence of a post-crash fire also hindered the search.
Emergency personnel were surprised to discover that Wells, one of Trooper-2’s patients, was still alive after having been thrown clear of the aircraft. She was transported by ambulance to an area hospital, where she was admitted in critical condition and, as of this writing, continues to recover. The other occupants perished, presumably on impact.
The wreckage revealed that the aircraft’s landing gear was down and locked. The Fenestron portion of the tail had been severed, and was lying approximately 50 ft from the fuselage. The ground surrounding the scene was saturated with aviation fuel.
The cause of the crash is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, but weather is believed to be a factor.
Between 2007 and mid-2008, MSP’s aviation program came under intense scrutiny, as well as an audit, after state legislators questioned the wisdom of investing $33.6 million to upgrade or replace the department’s 12 Dauphins, which have amassed a total of 90,000 flight hr since the first ones, including Trooper-2, were delivered in 1989.
The audit, completed on September 9, just weeks before the loss of Trooper-2, concluded that the aviation program was being mismanaged. Specifically, record keeping was poor, maintenance was sometimes inadequate, and patients were routinely being flown to hospitals when ground ambulances would have been more practical.
"I think the pilots do an outstanding job. I think the paramedics are doing a great job, as well," said state Sen. John C. Astle (D-Anne Arundel County), who served as a helicopter pilot aboard Marine-One during the Nixon administration. "But the problem is with the management, because that’s where these problems start, not with the line pilots."
Astle, who served aboard the review committee that investigated the 1986 MSP crash — the same committee that recommended upgrading from light, single-engine, VFR aircraft to medium, IFR-certified twins — said members of the legislature are awaiting the outcome of the NTSB investigation before deciding what changes will be made. Astle, did, however, acknowledge that things inside MSP Aviation would not remain the same, saying, "We will want to make some changes in the way the program operates."