Copter That Crashed Lacked Certain Safety Features, NTSB Says

By Mary Pat Flaherty
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, October 9, 2009

A medical helicopter that crashed on a rainy night in South Carolina lacked safety features recommended by federal experts and was trying to make an unplanned landing at a small, unattended airport whose weather reporting system had been out of service for weeks.

The fiery crash Sept. 25 near Georgetown, S.C., in which three crew members were killed, was the first fatal accident for the medical helicopter industry this year. Last year was its deadliest -- 28 crew members and patients were killed in seven accidents.

In the crash last month, the helicopter did not have night-vision equipment or a system to warn the crew that it was flying too close to obstacles or the ground, said Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the National Transportation Safety Board.

The helicopter also lacked an autopilot system, which would have kept it level and on course even if the pilot had become disoriented, Knudson said in response to questions from The Washington Post. The NTSB has urged medical helicopter programs to adopt each of those features, saying that they could have prevented some accidents.

The cause of the South Carolina accident is under investigation, but the crash, which occurred one day after the NTSB had called again for tighter safety regulations, has refocused attention on deaths in what has become a $2.5 billion industry. It "does underscore that the system needs to be fixed," NTSB member Robert L. Sumwalt said Tuesday.

The South Carolina program, Carolina LifeCare, is run by Omniflight Helicopters, a private company based in Addison, Tex. It operates 100 aircraft in 18 states, according to its Web site.

An Omniflight attorney declined to comment.

A Washington Post series in August reported that helicopters are permitted to operate without many of the safety features used by commercial airlines, although working on a medical helicopter has become one of the most dangerous jobs in the country. Most medical helicopter flights move patients between hospitals, not from accident scenes.

On the night of the South Carolina crash, the crew had taken a patient to a medical center in Charleston and was headed to its base about 90 miles away in Conway. The crew maneuvered around two storm pockets before trying to divert to an airport in Georgetown.

The Georgetown weather station was not working because of a lightning strike Sept. 4 "that completely fried the equipment" and was awaiting repairs, said Jamey Kempson, an airport engineer with the South Carolina Aeronautics Commission.

The helicopter crashed about 11:30 p.m., the NTSB said. Killed were pilot Patrick Walters, 45, flight nurse Diana Conner, 42, and flight medic Randolph Dove, 39.

Omniflight's aircraft are tracked by a central communications center that monitors weather and approves flights, its Web site says.

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