NASHVILLE, Tenn. - A preliminary government report on a medical helicopter crash that killed three Tennessee crew members said Monday that the pilot was apparently trying to beat an approaching thunderstorm.
The National Transportation Safety Board report didn't rule on the cause of the March 25 crash, which killed the pilot and two nurses. The crash happened while the flight operated by Hospital Wing was returning to its Brownsville base after delivering a patient to a Jackson hospital. The crew members were the only ones aboard during the crash.
The report says a co-worker who talked to the crew by phone said they knew a thunderstorm was moving in and thought they could land before it hit. The co-worker reported lightning and a loud clap of thunder right before the accident.
Investigators said they found no signs of a lightning strike on the helicopter debris. The helicopter caught fire after the crash, but lightning can leave signature marks such as melting caused by very high heat, Peter Knudson, a spokesman for the NTSB.
A probable cause is not expected to be released for several months, he said.
The victims were pilot Doug Phillips, 58, of Bartlett, Tenn.; nurse Misty Brogdon, 36, of Jackson; and nurse Cindy Parker, 48, of Dyersburg.
Another medical helicopter company, Air Evac Lifeteam based in West Plains, Mo., has said that they turned down a flight in the same area that morning because the weather at the time was considered too dangerous for their helicopters to fly.
The Hospital Wing helicopter departed from Brownsville at 4:26 a.m. to pick up a patient in Parsons and flew to Jackson. According to another pilot with Hospital Wing who was not identified in the report, it was dark and cloudy when he arrived at the Brownsville base to start his shift and he was concerned about the weather.
The report said the other pilot called Phillips, who was still at the Jackson hospital, and Phillips stated that "he wanted to get the helicopter out." The other pilot asked him whether he could stay at the hospital, but Phillips indicated didn't want to leave the helicopter on the hospital's elevated pad.
According to weather data recorded at the Jackson airport about 17 miles to the east of the accident, a storm system was moving through the area and witnesses reported lightning, thunder, high winds and heavy rain bands.
"The accident pilot then stated that he figured he had about 18 minutes to get the helicopter back to base to beat the storm," the report says.
The two flight nurses almost didn't make the flight, according to the report. Phillips asked the other pilot to call the nurses, who were not onboard the helicopter, and tell them that he was going to take off and that they would have be picked up later by car.
But they did make the flight and one of the nurses was talking by phone with the pilot at the base just as the wind began to pick up, perhaps up to 20 knots. Then just after the call ended, "there was an immediate loud clap of thunder and lightning that made him jump," the report said.
According to local authorities, workers at a nearby factory reported seeing a large burst of lightning, followed by an orange glow in the area of the crash.
The report said the helicopter had no mechanical anomalies before the crash.
Hospital Wing suspended operations after the accident, but has since resumed flights, said Ruth Ann Hale, a spokeswoman for the company.
Hospital Wing is a not-for-profit company that serves five hospitals in Memphis and West Memphis, Ark.