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Air medical service industry offers safety recommendations to NTSB

In response to an increase in fatal medical helicopter crashes in 2008, the medical helicopter industry is urging that proven technologies and systems be adopted, along with streamlined corresponding compliance standards, particularly for flights conducted in low lighting and changing weather.

These recommendations are outlined in a joint position paper submitted by the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS), the Helicopter Association International (HAI), and the Air Medical Operators Association (AMOA) in advance of medical helicopter safety hearings scheduled by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), Feb. 3-6, 2009. AAMS has been asked to participate in the hearings.

Chief among the associations’ proposals is that all medical night-flight operations be required to either utilize night vision goggles (NVGs) or similar enhanced-vision systems, or be conducted strictly under instrument flight rules (IFRs), in a timeline established by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and in coordination with air medical service providers.

“While the NTSB has not yet released all its findings, what we do know is that recent studies reveal that the majority of accidents occur in low light and changing weather,” said AAMS President Sandy Kinkade. “Moreover, a review of accidents over the last two years shows that no service model, category of operator (for-profit, not-for-profit, civilian or government) or geographical area is immune to accidents. Therefore, to reduce this tragic accident rate, it is imperative that our industry continue to adopt appropriate safety measures, particularly with regard to nighttime and changing weather situations, and that more funds be dedicated to aviation infrastructure improvements for helicopters.”

In particular, the associations are recommending that Congress expedite funding for hospital helipads, enhanced off-airport weather reporting and global positioning systems (GPS) technologies, and other initiatives aimed at improving the low-altitude aviation infrastructure.

The associations also believe the FAA should study flight crew fatigue factors; establish guidelines to discourage “helicopter shopping” among local emergency-response networks; and adopt regulations and new technology standards that govern equipment, devices and procedures. Further, the FAA should provide best practices related to existing operational control systems and flight operations quality assurance programs.

“As the new Obama administration has recognized, it is imperative we address our nation’s crumbling infrastructure by finding ways to quickly implement beneficial new technologies, and that philosophy should also extend to the low-altitude aviation infrastructure,’ Kinkade said. “As this intolerable accident rate has demonstrated, immediate improvements are needed in the current medical helicopter operating environment, and air medical services are committed to the changes needed to improve safety.”

For the full Air Medical Service Safety Position Paper recommendations to the NTSB, see