Their mission is usually critical: get the patient to the hospital, fast. And, by-and-large, they do it successfully. But a recent rash of EMS helicopter accidents, with Wednesday night's now part of the list, have raised red flags with the National Transportation Safety Board. The NTSB's vice chairman, over two weeks ago said, "There have been too many of them. We need to do something about it right now."
There have been 12 Medevac helicopter crashes nationwide in the last year. Nine of them resulted in fatalities, including one late last month outside Baltimore. In fact, the fatality count from Medevac helicopter crashes, now at 25, is higher than it's ever been in a single year.
The former chairman of the NTSB, Jim Hall, is upset with what he calls a worsening trend. He labels the emergency care choppers "the most dangerous aircraft in the skies today." And the safety board is about to hold hearings on the subject.
"They're looking at accidents such as this one and others elsewhere in the country," said John Brannen, NTSB.
"This increase in accidents will have to be scrutinized and as happened in the 1980s, they made some significant changes and some observations of EMS accidents back in the 1980's, and there were recommendations made," said Erich Schmid, U.S. Helicopters / Chopper 7 HD pilot.
Schmid makes no judgments about what might have caused the crash Wedmesday night, but acknowledges that the aviation community is concerned about the uptick in EMS chopper accidents.
Those concerns are not new. The safety board studied 55 such crashes between 2002 and 2005 and found that 29 of them could have been prevented.
Most of the accidents happen at night, and the NTSB looked into the use of night-vision goggles to improve safety. Some EMS flight services use them, but many don't, largely because of expense. The NTSB did, however, recommend that terrain warning systems be installed on EMS flights. The FAA has not yet acted on that.
But the call for improved technology will most certainly be raised again in the wake of this latest tragedy.
"Regulations can be tough, and change is hard to make, but if we can make a change that to the make this environment we fly in safer for us, it's something that's well responded to by pilots," said Schmid.
In January 2003, an Air Angels flight went down in DuPage County, killing the pilot. He was the only one on board and had just refueled the aircraft. The NTSB's probable cause of the crash was pilot error with weather as a contributing factor.
When the NTSB concluded its study of EMS helicopter crashes two years ago, investigators recommended that Medevac companies be required to perform risk assessments on their flights. While some companies do that, others don't, because it's not required.