Communications & Dispatch, News, Operations

Chopper Flew Job Life Flight Attempted

A PHI Air Medical helicopter that crashed, killing a patient and all three crew members near Huntsville on Sunday, was flying a mission that a Life Flight helicopter had undertaken earlier, but cut short, driven back by low clouds.

The Life Flight helicopter was about 10 miles from Huntsville when the aircraft turned around and returned to Houston, said Tom Flanagan, chief operating officer at Memorial Hermann Hospital-The Texas Medical Center, which runs the Life Flight program.

The PHI crew based at a Bryan airport accepted the assignment after weighing the risks with a company adviser – an experienced pilot – in Phoenix.

“The crew had a conversation with the EOC (the pilot at enhanced operational control in Phoenix),” said PHI Air Medical spokesman Jonathan Collier. “He gave recommendations, and they decided to go. We are conducting a full investigation.”

About 90 minutes after Life Flight turned back, PHI’s helicopter crashed into pine trees in Sam Houston National Forest shortly before 3 a.m., killing patient David Disman, 58, and the crew.

Collier, Disman’s relatives and others praised the bravery of the PHI crew. But among some in trauma care, the crash raised questions of whether air transport was required, who sought it and whether the low clouds made helicopter flight too hazardous early Sunday.

Dr. Kenneth Mattox, chief of staff at Ben Taub General Hospital whose specialities include trauma care, said, “No one has shown there is a survival advantage to flying patients in, as opposed to driving them by ambulance. You usually don’t gain time because the helicopter has to fly from an airport and then to a second hospital.”

Within 60 miles of the destination hospital, an ambulance is often as quick as a helicopter and much cheaper, he said.

Despite his views about the growing use of medical helicopters, Mattox effusively praised the courage and work of the PHI crew. “I am very respectful of the people who were doing this job,” he said.

Disman’s son, Jason, said of the crew, “We are so very, very thankful to all of them. Every one of those people did their job. They didn’t back down.”

Killed with Disman were pilot Charles Wayne Kirby, 63, of Bryan; paramedic Stephanie Waters, 27, of Cedar Park; and flight nurse Jana Bishop of Magnolia, who would have turned 29 Monday.

David Disman thought his persistent back problems may have been causing the pain he felt Saturday, but doctors at Huntsville Memorial Hospital concluded he had a ruptured aortic aneurysm, his son said.

Medical personnel reduced Disman’s blood pressure so he wouldn’t bleed to death and sought to transfer him to Memorial Hermann Hospital-The Texas Medical Center in Houston, said Huntsville Memorial spokeswoman Karen Bilsing.

Doctors never outright said Disman wouldn’t survive, but said that, under the best of circumstances, those with that type of aneurysm have an 80 percent mortality rate, his son said.

“They really didn’t think an ambulance would cut it,” his son said.

A Life Flight helicopter was dispatched from Memorial Hermann to Huntsville at 12:45 a.m. The helicopter was about three or four minutes from Huntsville Memorial when it encountered low clouds, Flanagan said.

The Life Flight pilots were not supposed to fly when clouds were lower than 1,000 feet, and as the crew flew toward Huntsville, the cloud cover started at about 700 feet. The pilot turned his chopper around.

“If they’re feeling uncomfortable, then the mission is stopped,” Flanagan said.

Life Flight helicopters fly about 3,100 missions every year. Only about 1 percent are scrubbed, usually because of the weather, Flanagan said.

Disman’s son encouraged the medical team in Huntsville to put his father in his car so he could take him to Houston.

After Life Flight aborted the mission, Huntsville Memorial officials called PHI Air Medical and another helicopter company, the son said.

Bilsing said only one helicopter had declined to transport Disman.

The crew from PHI Air Medical agreed to the mission. If any of them had been against it, the helicopter wouldn’t have flown, Collier said.

About 2:45 a.m., the helicopter rose from the landing pad. Kirby, the pilot, radioed in two minutes later, and then communications were lost.

David Bowling, National Transportation Safety Board deputy regional chief, said investigators were at the scene Monday, trying to determine the cause of the crash.

They will review the chopper’s maintenance records, weather conditions and the pilot’s training.


12:45 a.m.: Life Flight dispatcher receives a request from Huntsville Memorial Hospital to transport a patient to Memorial Hermann Hospital-The Texas Medical Center.

1:18 a.m.: Life Flight pilot tells dispatcher they are aborting the mission because of the weather. About two minutes later, the dispatcher notifies Huntsville hospital officials that the mission is canceled.

2:45 a.m.: PHI Air Medicaldispatcher in Montgomery County tells the Life Flight dispatcher that one of their helicopters is taking the patient to Memorial Hermann.

2:47 a.m.: Last radio transmission from PHI helicopter is heard.