Public Service, Safety

Air Med Groups Drafting Aid for Assessing Helo Safeguards

By James T. McKenna | October 17, 2017

An Air Methods Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3e falls out of the sky on July 3, 2015, while taking off on a public relations mission in Frisco, Colorado. Image courtesy of the NTSB

An Air Methods Airbus Helicopters AS350 B3e falls out of the sky on July 3, 2015, while taking off on a public relations mission in Frisco, Colorado. Image courtesy of the NTSB

Three air medical industry groups, prompted by the NTSB, are drafting guidelines to help hospitals and aircraft operators better understand the safety provisions built into helicopter air ambulances they are considering acquiring.

Led by the Association of Critical Care Transport, the effort includes the Association of Air Medical Services and the Air Medical Operators Association. A small group of representatives from those groups is drafting a set of questions that hospitals and operators might use in assessing which helicopter best meets their safety and operational requirements, said Executive Director Greg Hildenbrand of Life Star of Kansas, a board member of the critical care transport group who is working on the effort.

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That group, known as ACCT, is a non-profit patient advocacy organization “committed to ensuring that critically ill and injured patients have access to the safest and highest quality critical care transport system possible,” according to its website. Its members include air and ground critical care transport providers, business organizations, associations and individuals.

The goal is to complete that draft and circulate it for comment by a technical advisory panel that includes engineering representatives from Airbus Helicopters, Bell Helicopter, Leonardo Helicopters and Sikorsky, and possibly MD Helicopters, said Lifeflight of Maine Executive Director Tom Judge. Judge, the ACCT board member who chairs the effort dubbed the NTSB Safety Recommendations Steering Committee, said comments also will be sought from professional organizations in the air medical community.

The work is the result of the NTSB’s investigation into the July 3, 2015, crash of an Air Methods AS350B3e in Frisco, Colorado. The pilot died of burns suffered in a post-crash fire in an accident that U.S. safety board concluded was survivable. “If the helicopter had been equipped with a crash-resistant fuel system, the potential for thermal injuries to the occupants would have been reduced or eliminated,” the NTSB found.

The safety board also found that people who acquire helicopters or use their services and those who operate or fly aboard them as part of their job “are likely unaware that the designs of most existing and newly manufactured helicopters do not include the improved crashworthiness standards required of newly certificated helicopters” or that the absence of those standards could put them at risk in an accident.

“They found a real state of unawareness of what exact safety systems were imbedded within a helicopter,” Judge said of the NTSB. “That has a lot to do with when the helicopter was originally type certificated. There isn’t a real easy way to say exactly, especially around fuel systems and seating, what the standard was in a particular aircraft.”

In that accident report, the safety board called on ACCT, the Association of Air Medical Services and the Air Medical Operators Association to collaborate and “establish a working group to develop and distribute guidelines, for those who purchase, lease or contract for helicopters, regarding the equipment and systems that would enhance the helicopters’ crashworthiness, including, at a minimum, a crash-resistant fuel system and energy-absorbing seats.”

That work comes as a FAA-chartered industry group is working on options for promoting greater incorporation of higher standards for crash-resistant fuel systems and seats in the civil helicopter fleet. Those standards were last modified in 1994, but the changes applied to helicopters type certificated after the changes took effect.

Regarding the NTSB’s recommendations, ACCT and the other groups are looking beyond fuel systems and seats to “address other occupant protection strategies and safety technologies,” according to a joint white paper.

“We’re actually interested in the wider pieces,” he said. Toward that end, the group is developing a matrix “that will let people walk through building up the helicopter, looking at the mission requirements, weight and space considerations, technical performance of the aircraft and safety technologies that you can embed in the aircraft.

“Then people can take that and use whatever other decision matrix they use for the actual purchasing to move forward,” Judge said.

He said the groups also would seek comment from the technical advisory panel and professional groups on that matrix.

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