Helicopter Crash Victim: John Edward Stumpff

(Courtesy Of Stumpff Family - Courtesy Of Stumpff Family)
Saturday, August 22, 2009

In a way, John Stumpff had spent his life preparing for the wilds of Alaska. A lover of the outdoors, he enjoyed hiking, skiing and ice climbing. After high school, he had joined the Air Force and then worked as a firefighter in New Hampshire before moving to Florida. He fell in love with Alaska during a visit and later moved there when he found a nursing job at a hospital.

"He was the only person I know who would go to Nome, Alaska, in January," said his sister, Patricia Schroder.

He eventually joined the hospital's flight program and was known for his skills and quick wit.

"He was an adrenaline junkie," Schroder said. "But he was also incredibly safety conscious and incredibly prepared. John was always the one who would lay out all of his equipment in advance, the one most prepared. He was very careful about taking risks."

In December 2007, Stumpff, 47, was a flight nurse on a helicopter attempting to ferry a patient across Prince William Sound near Whittier, Alaska. Normally, the Anchorage hospital where Stumpff worked relied on airplanes to ferry patients over open water because of the dangerous conditions. But on the night of the fatal crash, the planes weren't available, federal investigators said. So the dispatcher called for a helicopter.

As is common in such arrangements, Evergreen Helicopters of Alaska provided the helicopter and pilot, and the hospital provided the medical crew, Stumpff and Cameron Carter, a 24-year-old paramedic.

Investigators determined that it was pilot Lance Brabham's first winter flying a medical helicopter in Alaska. It was also his first trip across the cold, churning sound.

According to company policy, Brabham, 42, was supposed to do a risk assessment before lifting off, which included evaluating weather conditions and visibility, among other factors. But federal investigators were unable to find any such record when they searched. In a report, they concluded that Evergreen's risk assessment program "was not well understood, and not monitored."

Evergreen's president, Sabrina Ford, declined an interview. In an e-mail, she said she was "not at liberty to talk about the accident at this time as we have open litigation."

Weather conditions at the start of the flight allowed for visual flight rules, meaning that Brabham was counting on being able to see as he negotiated his way across the dark, open sea. But conditions quickly deteriorated, with light snow and mist. Brabham had night-vision goggles. The company said he was qualified to use them. The Federal Aviation Administration found he had not completed his training on them.

He was about an hour into his flight when the helicopter went down. The National Transportation Safety Board probe found that multiple mistakes contributed to the crash. It singled out the FAA for failing "to provide sufficient oversight."

Typically, the agency assigns a lead inspector to each medical helicopter company. In the case of Evergreen, the company went nearly two years without such an inspector. On the day of the crash, the lead inspector was in Panama, records show, checking airplanes owned by Evergreen.

That's not unusual. Some FAA inspectors are assigned airplanes and helicopters and have as many as 40 companies to oversee.

An FAA official said that Evergreen should have had a lead inspector but that other inspectors visited the firm. "It would be quite a stretch" to conclude that the FAA fell down on the job, said John M. Allen, the agency's director of flight safety standards.

The helicopter did not have a raft or an emergency beacon when it crashed. Nor was the crew required to wear flotation devices or survival suits while flying over waters that dipped as low as 33 degrees. An autopsy of Stumpff -- the only body recovered -- found that he drowned after suffering "minimal, non-life threatening traumatic injuries."

"Let's forget the bad weather for a moment," Schroder said. "They were flying over dark water with limited land lights with a pilot only trained for visual flight rules. It was his first winter there. It's almost as if: If it can go wrong, it will go wrong."

She criticized the FAA for not mandating night-vision goggles for medical helicopters, which the NTSB advised in 2006. In an interview, Allen said the FAA needed to study new technologies and get industry buy-in before mandating the equipment.

Schroder characterized the FAA's position as "smoke-screening. They're not going to sit there and say they're not doing anything on this. Call it human nature. Call it fear of liability. It's what we expected."

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