Tougher medical aircraft rules urged

Helicopter crashes draw attention of NTSB


Aftermath of SC helicopter crash, more than 50 others

The National Transportation Safety Board cited a fatal 2004 Newberry County helicopter crash in calling Wednesday for new regulations for emergency medical flight dispatching.

The board said the Newberry County crash and a 2004 fatal helicopter crash in Texas might have been prevented had there been better dispatching procedures.

The recommendation was one of four the board, which investigates aircraft accidents, made to the Federal Aviation Administration, the rule-making agency for the aircraft industry.

The FAA has 90 days to respond but is not required to issue any new regulations.

The report was in response to what the board described as a growing nationwide problem with emergency medical aircraft crashes.

The board also said Wednesday that pilot Bob Giard's "failure to maintain terrain clearance as a result of fog conditions" was the probable cause of the Newberry County crash.

Giard, 41, flight nurse Glenda Frazier Tessnear, 42, flight paramedic David Bacon Jr., 31, and patient Alicia May Goodwin, 27, died July 13, 2004, in a 5:35 a.m. crash in woods along I-26.

The Regional One helicopter had just lifted off after picking up Goodwin, a traffic accident victim. The helicopter was en route to Spartanburg Regional Healthcare System.

Giard was never told that two other medical helicopter services in Columbia either turned down the mission or aborted it because of fog, an earlier NTSB report said. A fourth medical helicopter in Greenville was grounded because of fog there.

"It may have made the accident pilot think twice," board member Deborah Hersman said during the four-hour meeting in Washington, D.C., broadcast live on the board's web site.

The Newberry County crash was among 55 emergency medical aircraft crashes in the U.S. between January 2002 and January 2005 -- the highest number since the 1980s.

Of the 55 crashes, 21 were fatal, killing 54 people, said Jeffrey Guzzetti, deputy director of regional investigations in the NTSB's Office of Aviation Safety.

Sixteen of the fatal wrecks involved helicopters. Five involved airplanes. All involved private companies.

The NTSB highlighted seven fatal crashes, including the one in Newberry County, in making its recommendations.

"It's a double-compounded tragedy when you lose lives that are trying to save lives," board member Ellen Engleman Conners said.

Guzzetti said 11 of the 55 crashes might have been prevented with formal dispatching procedures before or during flights.

Besides the dispatching requirement, the four-member board also recommended the FAA require all emergency medical services operators to:

Comply with existing federal regulations dealing with patient flights, regardless of whether patients are on board. Those rules are more stringent than regulations pertaining to flights involving only crew members. Of the 55 accidents, 35 occurred with no patients on board.

Develop and implement flight-risk evaluation programs that would include such factors as weather conditions. Thirteen of the 55 crashes might have been prevented with such procedures, Guzzetti said.

Install terrain awareness and warning systems on aircraft. Commercial airlines must have the systems, but there is no requirement for emergency medical aircraft. The systems might have helped in 13 of the 55 crashes, Guzzetti said.

FAA spokeswoman Alison Duquette said after the meeting that her agency "definitely would like to see changes within the industry." But new regulations might not be the answer.

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