An upcoming Popular Mechanics article tells of the fateful night when a Maryland state police helicopter crashed while transporting a patient and crew to a local hospital in 2008.
The detailed article champions the idea that medevac missions are perhaps the most dangerous of flights in commercial aviation. Flying at minimum altitudes, landing in modestly suitable locations, most medical helicopters lack safety equipment considered standard in other commercial aircraft.
The Maryland crash, as well as others before and after, has raised the awareness that many medical helicopters are not required to have safety equipment. Most operate without terrain warning systems, night vision goggles and flight data recorders. The equipment shortcomings result in a crash rate twice that of similar commercial aviation practices. In fact, according to a 2009 study referenced in the article, medevac personnel have a fatality rate higher than fishermen, loggers or steelworkers.
To provide one remedy, the article stresses the need for pre-flight weather checks. A 2006 NTSB study found that between 2002 and 2005, nearly half of the air ambulance crashes could have been prevented if crews and aircraft had better flight-risk assessments and tracking systems.
The article also includes the progress that some air ambulance organizations have made regarding tracking and safety equipment. Additionally, the air vs. ground debate and costs are presented. Popular Mechanics noted that in 1997 there were 330 medical helicopters in service. After Congress mandated new Medicare reimbursement rates for air ambulances, the number of helicopters has risen to 850.
Look for "Critical Condition" a Popular Mechanics Investigation, in the July 2010 issue.