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Parents’ Thoughts on Helicopter Ambulance Safety

Fri, Oct 23, 2009 — Robert and Brooke Blockinger

Safety Issues

Near midnight on October 15, 2008, an Air Angels emergency medical service (EMS) helicopter collided with a transmission tower near Aurora, Ill., en route at night from Valley West Hospital in Sandwich, Ill., to Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

At the controls of the Bell 222 was a single pilot who was killed. Also killed in this senseless tragedy was Kirstin Blockinger, age 14 months, who was being transported for additional medical treatment in Chicago. The two attending medical attendants were also killed. Four people dead in an instant, just 10 minutes into the flight, when their helicopter collided with a 734-foot-tall radio transmission tower.

We would not know of this tragedy for more than two hours. Robert was out of town preparing for a deployment to Afghanistan. I drove to Children’s Hospital in Chicago while baby Kirstin, suffering seizures, was being transported by helicopter. Arriving at the hospital, I was met by the hospital chaplain who informed me of the crash. Disbelief quickly gave way to anguished tears. After all, the name Air Angels denotes protection and succor.

I was finally able to get through on the telephone to Robert at 5 a.m. on the morning of October 16, repeating the sad news of the helicopter’s crash and Kirstin’s death. Robert got a plane back to Chicago later that day, and the two of us were just in stunned grief. Our daughter Kirstin was a fine, loving little girl. Her eyes danced with life, she had a smile that melted your heart, and her laughter was contagious and reflected all the discoveries which are so new and innocent to an infant—like her toes!

Her treatment at Children’s Memorial Hospital could have been a miracle of medical science. With the crash of the helicopter, Kirstin was robbed of her chance for that life-saving miracle.

We will bear the grim experience of October 15, 2008, for the remainder of our lives. The sense of loss does not diminish with time. In truth, the expression “time heals all wounds” is a myth. For parents, the loss of a child is permanent, and mental scar tissue really does not grow over the grim memory. Rather, all tears are expended and a dull ache remains.

What we have learned since, to our dismay and rising anger, is that helicopter EMS operations suffer from lapses in operational safety, deficiencies in key safety equipment, lack of essential procedures and lax oversight.

In this day and age, colliding inadvertently with man-made towers, buildings, bridges, is inexcusable. Why? Because these edifices can be included in a computerized terrain database, which forms the basis of TAWS, the terrain awareness and warning systems that are found on all commercial airliners. This equipment is largely responsible for virtually eliminating a class of accidents so pervasive that it has its own acronym: CFIT, for controlled flight into terrain. If a pilot of an airliner gets dangerously close to terrain (or man-made objects), the system sounds a warning to “Pull Up!”

The system provides a minute or more for an advanced warning of impending disaster. With their slower cruise speeds, TAWS would provide even more warning for helicopters. Reflect upon the fact that fixed wing cruise altitudes are always considerably higher than en route terrain and obstacles, so the fixed wing airplane’s risk exposure is mostly during the latter approach and landing phase. Consequently, the “at risk” terrain collision period for the fixed wing airplane may be as little as 2.5 percent or less of the cumulative flight time (and at night the risk is much less because a fixed wing airplane will be conducting a published instrument approach).

A completely different scenario pertains to the EMS helicopter (or any helicopter, for that matter). Helicopters are normally cruising in the lower altitudes for performance, icing avoidance, and air traffic control separation reasons. Helicopters are vulnerable to CFIT virtually throughout their sortie length, particularly at night or in foul weather. The workload for a single pilot is also much greater, often to the point of overload. The risk profile for EMS helicopters is in fact maximal.

The lawsuit filed on our behalf in the aftermath of the Aurora EMS helicopter collision with an antenna tower lists a bill of particulars, which is not unique. Indeed, it is a listing of deficiencies which, to a greater or lesser extent, has been identified in various studies, symposia and commentaries of recent years. The same factors contributing to a mishap or fatal accident keep cropping up.

For how much longer will this situation be tolerated? The loss of our infant daughter will have meaning only if it catalyzes action to improve the safety standards of EMS flights. Instead of delivering Kirstin to a hospital of scientific miracles, we have discovered that she was the innocent victim of poor to nonexistent aerial standards and procedures. Instead of hope, we have been cast into grief. Now, lamentations give way to a sense that action is too long overdue.

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