Lawsuit filed in October Air Angels crash

Parents sue over fatal Ill. medical copter accident
January 6, 2009 3:34:12 PM PST
A wrongful death lawsuit has been filed in connection with a medical helicopter crash in Aurora that killed four people back in October. The suit was filed by the family of a 14-month-old girl who was being transported to Children's Memorial Hospital for treatment.

There were no fatal commercial aviation crashes in the United States last year, but there were nine Medevac helicopter accidents with nearly three dozen deaths.

What's going wrong?

The family filing the lawsuit hopes their action will turn some long-standing safety recommendations into requirements.

The weather was clear. The route was familiar. No one knows why the Air Angels pilot was flying so low that his helicopter would hit a radio tower guy wire and go down, killing four, including the patient, 14-month-old Kirsten Blockinger. Kirsten's parents Tuesday filed suit against Air Angels, the pilot, and Reach Medical, the company that owns Air Angels.

"On Reach's medical site, it states it follows best practices for safety. Unfortunately, it did not do that in this case," said Don Nolan, Blockinger attorney.

The Air Angels tragedy was one of nine Medevac chopper crashes nationwide last year, involving 35 fatalities. It continues a deadly trend that prompted the national transportation safety board to recommend four years ago that specific changes be made in the growing helicopter Medevac industry.

Those changes would require companies to perform risk assessments on all their flights and the installation of terrain avoidance warning systems which would audio alert the pilots to obstacles ahead.

"We believe that had there been...a terrain avoidance warning system that this collision would never have taken place," said Nolan.

The FAA has not yet required what the safety board has recommended.

"We need to have situational awareness at all times," said Mary Jo Dunne, University of Chicago flight nurse.

Mary Jo Dunne is a veteran flight nurse with the University of Chicago's aeromedical network. Their helicopter is equipped with terrain avoidance gear. They do risk management assessments. And they're concerned with the uptick in fatal crashes.

"We need to do a better job of finding out how we can do a better job of finding out how we can better manage the risk," Dunne.

That's precisely what the safety board intends to do when it holds a special hearing on Medevac chopper safety next month. The Blockingers will be there. So will the former chairman of the NTSB.

"This is unfortunately, many times, business as usual in Washington, D.C., and that is that it takes families, it takes the public, and unfortunately many times it takes tragedies such as this to move the regulatory framework," said Hall, Nolan Law Group/former NTSB chair.

The Blockingers chose not to speak Tuesday. They will file a written statement for the NTSB hearings next month. That the safety board is holding a special hearing on this issue underscores the seriousness of the problem and the board's desire to make safety changes.