Analysis: Weather a factor in multiple fatal helicopter medical transport accidents for decades
Authorities say an investigation into the fatal crash of a McAlester-based medical transport helicopter will take months, but even in the investigation’s earliest stages, one known fact already stands out.
The weather, and, more specifically, cloud cover.
Pilot Matt Mathews, 41, of Oklahoma City, was flying an EagleMed helicopter through an already dark night in the skies of southeast Oklahoma a week ago when he encountered a lowering cloud cover, with the cloud ceiling dropping rapidly from high to low. A federal investigator said the cloud cover was bad enough to prompt Mathews to abort the return flight from a Tulsa hospital to McAlester Regional Airport.
And, as he begin the process of turning the chopper around, the aircraft slammed into elevated, rocky terrain, killing Mathews and injuring two crew members.
Several experts on aviation safety, along with an extensive analysis by the McAlester News-Capital of prior medical transport helicopter crashes like the one in McIntosh County last week, indicate the scenario presented to Mathews that tragic evening — namely, the loss of visibility at night — is one of the most dangerous situations a pilot can face. And, the newspaper’s analysis shows multiple prior medical transport helicopter flights ending in tragedy across the nation in recent years unfolded under similar circumstances.
“Spatial disorientation,” said veteran helicopter pilot Philip Greenspun, an aviation helicopter instructor at East Coast AeroClub in Bedford, Mass., and a former airline pilot. “You’ve been watching the natural horizon, trees down, sky up, and all of the sudden you find yourself in the clouds looking at a four-inch instrument.”
What’s critical to understand, experts said, is that in the case of many medical helicopter flights, pilots are often flying by visual flight rules only. This means they are flying basically by sight alone as they navigate the aircraft through the night. This is opposed to flying by instrument — or relying on on-board computer technology — to determine where the aircraft is in relation to the ground.
The Eurocopter AS350 Mathews was flying was equipped with instrument-only flying technology.
“While all of the missions and flights are flown under Visual Flight Rules, the helicopters are equipped for Instrument Flight Rules flights and all EagleMed pilots are instrument rated by the Federal Aviation Administration and have extensive training to include simulation,” EagleMed spokesman Jim Gregory said.
It is unclear if Mathews attempted to switch over to intsrument only flying or if he even had time to do so.
Dallas-based attorney Ladd Sanger is a helicopter pilot who previously litigated a case involving a fatal crash of another EagleMed helicopter in Oklahoma. The crash is the fourth fatal crash for EagleMed in Oklahoma in recent years and the second involving a McAlester-based chopper. Those three other crashes include:
— A pilot and a flight nurse for EagleMed were killed in a July 22, 2010 accident near Kingfisher, Oklahoma. The flight was a visual flight rules only flight. Federal documents indicate the crash unfolded as the pilot talked about how to fly a helicopter while hunting coyotes. The pilot made a downward nose input to the helicopter to simulate flying while hunting coyotes when the helicopter crashed.
— In February 2013 in Oklahoma City an EagleMed-operated chopper crashed in a parking lot of a retirement home in Oklahoma City. A pilot and nurse were killed.
— On June 11, 2013, a McAlester-based chopper crashed during takeoff at Choctaw Indian Hospital Heliport in Talihina. A passenger was killed. When the helicopter was 175 feet west from the takeoff location, the left side of the rotor blade disk impacted a 41-foot tall metal light pole.
Sanger filed litigation against the helicopter’s manufacturer and others regarding an engine modification on the helicopter in the Oklahoma City crash. He did not sue EagleMed and noted “admittedly not all the crashes are EagleMed’s fault, including the one in Oklahoma City.”
However, Sanger said EagleMed’s “accident rate is too high and it’s concerning.”
EagleMed, however, indicates safety is a top priority for the company.
“Safety is part of the very fabric and character of our organization that is practiced across the entire spectrum of our operations,” the company said on its website. “EagleMed is committed to safety as a core value.”
For the helicopter medical transport industry overall, safety has been both a priority and a concern. It’s also been a concern of the federal government and aviation regulators. The Federal Aviation Administration said 62 accidents that killed 125 people on air ambulance flights from 1991 to 2010 could have been mitigated, prompting the FAA to issue a sweeping final regulatory rule in 2014 that required helicopter operators, including air ambulances, “to have stricter flight rules and procedures, improved communications and training and additional on-board safety equipment.”