Monday, June 30, 2008
Why does this keep happening?
Another medical helicopter down. Two of them. And six (or seven, according to some reports) dead.
I actually feel fairly close to this issue -- a day doesn't go by that I don't hear one of the Augusta 109's of Seattle's Life Flight go buzzing by. I can even identify them by sound from the other helicopter traffic we get here in Edmonds: Snohomish County's UH-1 SAR bird, the huge Army MH-47's, the smaller Coast Guard HH-60's, and even a very occasional Blackhawk or variant. The Life Flite guys hug the shore, I think, staying just off over the water to keep their noise footprint low. Very courteous!
But not quite three years ago this rash of EMS crashes hit home as one of those daily visitors went down just a few miles from my home.
So every time I hear about another well intentioned EMS crew paying the price (I don't mean to sound too rhapsodic and lauditory here), I feel it more strongly than with most other crashes. I don't usually launch into the "Something Must Be Done!" sort of rant, demanding congressional investigations, senate hearings, increased regulation and stringent limitation. But it is only a matter of time before one of these things goes down really ugly. Into a busload of nuns and orphans, into the roof of a hospital's NICU, or something similarly ghastly. So now I've got to say it: Something Must Be Done!
And what is that?
Well, before you act, you think. And before you think, you learn.
Why are these crashes happening?
First, EMS aviation is up. Way up. I don't have the numbers handy, but Google does, I promise. And I'll lead you to check it out if you don't believe me. But the rate of accidents-per-flying-hour is also way up. So this isn't simply a product of statistics.
It could be a product of training -- just look at those wacky airport screeners. If you suddenly up the demand for qualified members of a highly skilled (and more than mildly heroic) profession, you run the risk of scraping the bottom of the barrel. Hell, we saw that at Amazon back-in-the-day when pretty much anyone with a heartbeat was qualified to interview as a customer service rep. And answering phones for Earth's Biggest Bookstore doesn't hold a candle to flying the sick and injured to lifesaving surgeries and treatments. So I could buy this idea -- all the good pilots got used up. But we're still not talking about a huge pool. We're talking about a few hundred more pilots. And I can only assume that the military is generating a pretty good pool of qualified pilots. Retention is a struggle right now for all of the land services -- so that means that qualified aviators are probably pushing through faster than ever. And sure, a particular subgroup like helicopter pilots may not be suffering from the same problem as the services at large, but I still can't imagine that the pool's been scraped that far down.
Could it be overuse? Fleet maintenance? Helicopters without adequate spare parts or maintenance? Maintenance personnel without adequate training?
Ultimately, I fear the problem is cultural. EMS crews are the lightweight (hold on, don't flame yet) versions of the military CSAR units and the Coast Guard SAR pilots and rescue swimmers. They do, after all, fly helicopters to pick up those in trouble and carry them to safety. They may not do so either under fire and deep in enemy territory or hundreds of miles out to sea in the middle of a hundred year storm. Hence the "lightweight" comment -- let's be honest and admit that picking up a few tourists strapped to a backboard from an LZ prepped by firefighters on the ground is different from winching a fisherman from the deck of a sinking crabber in the middle of the night.
It just IS. Do disrespect. No criticism. Yet.
But do we have the recipe for a Napoleon Complex here? Anyone with a heartbeat must get a little thrill at the thoughts of oceanic or combat SAR missions. There is the stuff of true, deep heroism. Flying helicopters to and from hospitals is still cool -- I'd do it. But is there a danger of setting up the crews of the EMS birds to try to mimic their slightly higher profile cousins? To take risks, in other words, that they are neither trained or equipped for? To venture forth in weather that should keep them grounded. To rush to fly missions without proper briefing and planning?
To try, in short, to rise to a perceived ideal of that which makes their brethren in the uniformed services such an elite.
And who could blame them? Lives are on the line! And if you didn't see value in saving lives, would you not be doing something else? Covering traffic, leading tours, shuttling oil rig workers, filming movies? I'd push the envelope, you'd push the envelope, anyone would. Imagine making the call, as the pilots of an EMS helicopter are tasked to.
You've got two people injured in a car accident 75 miles away. They'll probably die if transported by ambulance. But you can get out and back, with your highly qualified flight nurses, fast enough to save their lives. Now comes the agonizing part: weather is sitting just at (or just below) minimums. Do you go or do you stay? What if it clears on the way? What if you don't go and then get blamed and labeled a coward? So you tell the ground crew to prep the helicopter, the nurses to get loaded, and you start reviewing the mission and planning your flight. Five or ten minutes later, everyone is ready to go, but the weather hasn't gotten better. Do you go, or do you scrub? Of course you go!
And who could blame you.
But how do we, if this is the source of the problem, or part of it even, stop those well intentioned crews from taking undue risks, whether it be in the name of honest heroism or a desire to fly with the big boys?