Wednesday, June 16, 1999

Air Care choppers won't fly in thick fog

Fatal flight faced poor visibility

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Cincinnati's Air Care helicopter would not have flown in the foggy conditions that prevailed late Monday in Jackson, Ky., when a University of Ken tucky air ambulance crashed into a mountaintop, killing the four crew members aboard.

        “Our policy is pretty conservative,” said Air Care's director, Dudley Smith. “We won't fly in freezing rain, turbulent winds, lightning storms. Our biggest concern is visibility.”

        Fog had reduced visibility to a quarter-mile on the ground at Jackson when the UK medical helicopter slammed into a rugged mountainside shortly after taking off.

        The victims were identified as flight nurse Sheila Zellers, 43, of Elizabethtown, Ky.; paramedic Brian Harden, 31, of Richmond, Ky., and pilots Don Green, of the Lexington area, and Ernie Jones, of the Cleveland area.

        Burned trees were still smoking Tuesday at the crash scene a few miles southeast of the Julian Carroll Airport in Jackson, 125 miles southeast of Lexington in Breathitt County.

        Dr. Emily Craig, state forensic anthropologist, said the wreckage was strewn over about an acre of very steep terrain, hindering efforts to recover the victims' remains.

        “It's a terrible scene,” she said. “It's a time-consuming and tedious procedure.”

        At the time of the crash, visibility was also just 100 feet vertically, said Mike Lewis, science and operations officer at the National Weather Service in Jackson.

        The pilot was certified to fly using instruments in low visibili ty, Mr. Lewis said.

        The Sikorsky S-76 was stationed at the Jackson airport for 12 hours a day so UK could provide more timely air ambulance service in eastern Kentucky. It was headed back to Lexington for the night when it crashed.

        In Cincinnati, Mr. Smith said Tuesday that he didn't foresee a change in the way University Hospital's pilots approach weather..

        “What we've got works, but it's frustrating for us to see other people flying in weather we wouldn't,” he said.

        Mr. Smith said UK and University Hospital have an informal “gentlemen's agreement” in which one helicopter service would back up the other in time of crisis if more than one helicopter were needed or inclement weather made it easier for another service to reach patients.

        Todd Bailey of MedFlight of Ohio, which has five helicopters that serve hospitals throughout Ohio, said no medical teams he is aware of “push weather” — an industry term for flying in conditions that are not safe.

        “Something extraordinary must have happened to cause this accident,” he said.

        Ben Schrick, chief operating officer of Petroleum Helicopter Inc., in Lafayette, La., said representatives of the firm were on the crash scene Tuesday, working closely with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transportation Safety Board to determine the cause of the crash.

        Mr. Schrick said Petroleum Helicopter will provide another helicopter to the UK Hospital within days to replace the one that crashed.

        In 1981, Petroleum Helicopter entered the air medical business, Mr. Schrick said. Today, about 20 percent of the company's business involves air medical transport; the rest supports the offshore oil and gas industry.

        Mr. Schrick said the company, which marked its 50th anniversary in February, has had one other air medical crash. In 1996, a Sikorsky S-76 carrying a pilot and a medic crashed in Alexandria, La., killing the pilot.

        “As far as our safety record is concerned, we continually beat the helicopter industry by a very considerable margin,” Mr. Schrick said.

        The aircraft was a 1981 model that had its last major refurbishment in 1996. According to FAA records, the aircraft has been involved in only three minor incidents. The last service difficulty was reported to the FAA in April.

        A report published in October 1998 by the Flight Safety Foundation found the S-76 had a “relatively good safety record.”

        The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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