Health

Medical helicopter operators pushed to improve safety

Air Methods says it is investing millions in safety measures

An Air Care helicopter flies near Kinnick Stadium as it comes in for a landing at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
An Air Care helicopter flies near Kinnick Stadium as it comes in for a landing at the University of Iowa Hospitals & Clinics in Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2017. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Air ambulance transports can be more dangerous than other helicopter flights because of the urgency of responding to emergencies, such as car crashes, heart attacks or premature births.

For-profit air ambulance companies — including several that operate in Iowa — have worse safety records than not-for-profit or public safety agencies, research shows.

A medical helicopter crashed Jan. 2, 2013, in north central Iowa, killing the pilot and two crew members from the Mercy Medical Center-North Iowa in Mason City. Federal investigators blamed ice on the helicopter blades, saying the craft was not equipped to fly in the winter, the Mason City Globe Gazette reported.

That helicopter was owned and operated by Med-Trans, a subsidiary of for-profit Air Medical Group Holdings, based in Texas.

Air Methods, a Colorado-based company that owns 10 of the 16 medical helicopters registered in Iowa, has had three fatal crashes killing a total 10 people in the last year across the country, a review of the National Transportation Safety Board’s Aviation Accident Database shows.

The most recent was April 26, when an Air Methods helicopter plummeted into a wooded area near Hazelhurst, Wis., after taking a patient to Madison. The pilot and two medical crew members died.

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A 2017 Consumer Reports investigation showed the four largest for-profit air ambulance operators — including Air Methods, Air Medical Group Holdings, Metro Aviation and PHI Air Medical — were connected to 68 percent of industry crashes from 2010 to 2016, although they accounted for just 51 percent of the air-transport market.

A 2014 study in the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery reported 85 percent of 139 air ambulance crashes from 1998 to 2012 were linked to commercial operators. The remaining crashes were associated with not-for-profit or public safety helicopters. Researchers said “deficiencies in training, reduced availability of equipment and resources, as well as questionable flight selection seem to play a key role” in crashes of for-profit operators.

Air Methods transported more than 70,000 patients in 2016, so crashes are rare.

The Federal Aviation Administration in 2014 released new rules requiring air ambulance operators to follow stricter flight rules, improve communication and training and add more onboard safety equipment.

Air Methods told The Gazette some of the 2014 rules incorporated things Air Methods already was doing, such as using night vision goggles and terrain awareness systems. The company has invested more than $100 million in safety in the last five years and is investing another $100 million in state-of-the-art simulators that allow pilots to prepare for emergency situations, Air Methods said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3157; erin.jordan@thegazette.com

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