Medical Copter Lacked Two Safety Upgrades

Recommended technology hard to get


Stacy ForsterMeg Jones | | Tuesday, May 13, 2008

MADISON, Wis. -- The company that operated the medical helicopter that crashed near La Crosse is updating its fleet with the latest safety equipment but had not retrofitted that aircraft, officials said Monday.

The Med Flight helicopter from the University of Wisconsin Hospital and Clinics crashed into a bluff minutes after takeoff Saturday night from La Crosse, killing all three crew members aboard.

The National Transportation Safety Board has recommended that air medical helicopters be equipped with night vision goggles and terrain avoidance systems. Air Methods Corp., the Colorado company that leased the UW Hospital's two American Eurocopter EC135 helicopters, said the company had embraced the technology, but only about 40% of its 330 aircraft had received the equipment updates.

The UW Hospital's helicopters were not among those that had been retrofitted, said Aaron Todd, chief executive officer of Air Methods.

"The fact they did not yet have this equipment did not compromise their ability to perform these missions safely, but indeed we believe that we can further enhance the safety overall within the air medical industry by having these technologies embraced as soon as we can get them procured," Todd said. He said he could not determine whether the equipment would have helped in this situation.

The equipment costs about $100,000, Todd said.

Killed in the crash were physician Darren Bean; nurse Mark Coyne; and pilot Steve Lipperer.

Todd said the equipment is difficult to procure, which has slowed down updates; he said night vision goggles are in high demand by the U.S. government.

On Monday, NTSB investigators were on the scene of the crash on a wooded bluff where wreckage found Sunday morning was scattered 600 feet downhill of the impact point in the Town of Medary, a few miles east of La Crosse and Onalaska. The helicopter's tail was broken off from the fuselage in the crash, and much of the aircraft was fragmented.

Later this week, the pieces will be transported to a hangar at La Crosse Municipal Airport for further investigation, said Keith Holloway, an NTSB public affairs officer.

It will likely take months for the NTSB to determine the cause of the crash and release its findings.

No radar information was available since the helicopter most likely didn't reach a high enough altitude to show up on radar before it crashed, Holloway said. The Med Flight helicopter lifted off from the La Crosse airport after refueling Saturday night. The air traffic control tower was closed at the time of the accident, so there's no air traffic information to check.

UW Hospital Med Flight helicopters do not carry flight data or cockpit voice recorders, known as black boxes, and are not required to do so, Holloway said.

NTSB investigators will check maintenance records, the pilot's logbook and medical records, examine the wreckage and talk to witnesses who reported hearing a helicopter nearby.

Air Methods' Todd said Lipperer had logged about 3,000 flight hours in roto-wing aircraft. He was using a visual flight plan, which was common, said Mike Allen, senior vice president of hospital-based services for Air Methods.

Hospital officials said they were touched by the outpouring of support they had received from within the hospital and from the community. Employees Monday wore blue and red ribbons in honor of the crash victims, and the hospital and clinics observed a moment of silence at 3:30 p.m.

Journal Sentinel reporters Stacy Forster reported for this story in Madison and Meg Jones in Milwaukee.

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