Controversial hospital helipad gets OK

April 23, 2009 (CHICAGO) Children's Memorial Hospital is building a new facility near Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Residents say medical helicopter traffic in a neighborhood filled with high-rises is too dangerous.

This is a preliminary "go" from the Illinois Department of Transportation. Just as in any controversial proposal, there are experts who disagree, and in this case, there is a well-respected hospital and a well-organized group of its new neighbors who disagree on the wisdom of putting a heliport on a high-rise.

The new Children's Memorial hospital will stand 22 stories tall. On top will sit the heliport, which Children's says is essential to its life-saving mission. Children's has had for nearly 20 years a heliport atop its existing facility in Lincoln Park -- a very populated area -- but not populated with the skyscrapers that make up its new home.

"You're flying in and out of the most densely populated neighborhoods in Chicago. You're landing on a smaller mountain surrounded by bigger mountains," said Patty Frost, Streeterville Org. of Active Residents.

Some Streeterville residents remain unconvinced that flying a helicopter into this environment, as Children's' expects to do nearly 80 times a year, is a good idea.

Wind gusts off the lake often bounce off the skyscrapers creating wind tunnel turbulence. One former air safety investigator called this a "high risk proposal."

"We would never proceed with the construction or use of a heliport unless we were absolutely convinced that it would be safe, that it would be safe for our patients, that it would be safe for our staff, and that it would be safe for the neighborhood," said Children's CEO Patrick Magoon in December 2007.

Children's says it has done comprehensive wind testing with wind modeling computations that have exceeded all of IDOT's requirements. Its consultant has concluded there is virtually no danger to the surrounding neighborhood.

"When you test a flight path at one angle and one wind speed at one wind direction, and it occurs only 11 percent of the time, that's not comprehensive testing," said Frost.

New York City does not allow high-rise heliports after a helicopter malfunction in the late 70's that killed four people. It does have many lower level helipads, some for medical use.

The Children's heliport proposal, which has met both FAA and IDOT flight standards, comes at a time of increased scrutiny of Medevac flights nationwide due to a spike in fatal accidents, including last fall's Air Angels crash in Aurora.

The FAA says it will now recommend that all Medevac helicopters be equipped with terrain awareness warning systems.

The issue here is urban terrain and how wind behaves in it, and whether the tests have been as thorough as they possibly can be. Again, one side says they have been. The other side says they have not. That disagreement has now triggered and will be the focus of public hearings on the heliport proposal in early June.

An IDOT spokesperson Thursday afternoon says safety is its primary concern and that it will do whatever it takes to make sure everyone is satisfied with the level of study on this proposal.

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