MORRISTOWN, N.J. — The helicopter flies toward a ridge looming in late-afternoon shadow. But before it can get too close a voice comes over pilot Marc Lajeunesse’s headphones:
“Caution, terrain. Caution, terrain.”
Lajeunesse intentionally continues toward the ridge as a voice intones, “Warning, terrain! Warning, terrain!” A computer map displays the high ground in bright red and the words “PULL UP” appear on the cockpit display. Lajeunesse turns safely away and the warnings end.
A computerized safety system such as the Honeywell model demonstrated by Lajeunesse is one of the best defenses against the epidemic of accidents on air-ambulance helicopter flights that have killed 35 people in nine crashes over the past 12 months, say federal accident investigators and safety experts.
The system is designed to help prevent accidents such as the crash Wednesday night in Aurora, Ill., that killed four people, including a 1-year-old girl being ferried to a hospital. Preliminary reports indicate the medical evacuation helicopter struck a support wire holding a 750-foot radio tower. Besides natural obstacles, the system warns helicopter pilots when they fly too close to towers and other man-made obstructions.
“I don’t want to have to see the numbers of deaths continue in this area when we have technology that can prevent these kinds of accidents,” said Mark Rosenker, head of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). The board has urged federal regulators to mandate the safety systems on air-ambulance flights.
Only a tiny faction of the industry’s helicopters are equipped and federal regulators say they will not consider requiring them until studies on the devices are completed next year.
Industry slow to adopt
Honeywell was the first company to create a worldwide database of every hilltop and radio tower to help stem one of the biggest killers in aviation: pilots who inadvertently strike the ground in darkness or poor weather.
The system, known as Terrain Awareness and Warning System (TAWS), tracks an aircraft’s heading and altitude, and issues alerts if pilots get too close to danger. A computer screen in the cockpit shows approaching obstacles, so pilots can steer clear well in advance.
It virtually wiped out such crashes on airliners since becoming mandatory in 2005.
Honeywell adapted the system for helicopters in 2000, but the industry has been slower to adopt it than airlines. Honeywell has sold about 200 of the helicopter devices, mostly to companies that ferry workers and equipment to off-shore oil rigs, said Doug Kult, a sales director for Honeywell’s helicopter division.
The NTSB recommended in January 2006 that federal regulators require the systems on the nation’s 750 medevac helicopters. The NTSB said terrain-warning systems likely would have prevented 17 of 55 accidents it studied.
Legislation sponsored by Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., also would require the systems.
The Federal Aviation Administration, which oversees air-ambulance companies, believes the devices have promise but require further study, said John Allen, deputy director of the FAA’s Flight Standards Service.
“These processes, undeniably, go a little slow for some folks, especially the NTSB,” Allen said. “When we go to a new technology, we have to make sure there isn’t some unforeseen hazard. We’d hate to make a rule that would contribute to future accidents.”
The Association of Air Medical Services, an air-ambulance trade group, informally urges members to use terrain avoidance systems, but would prefer not to see a requirement, said Christopher Eastlee, the group’s government relations manager.
Some companies are not waiting for a government mandate. Air Methods, the largest air-ambulance company in the nation, decided two years ago to equip its fleet of about 340 helicopters.
“I think it’s critical for our company to be very proactive about safety,” said Craig Yale, the company’s vice president of corporate development.
A believer in the device
In a demonstration flight last week for USA TODAY, Lajeunesse flew near New York City to show how the Honeywell system reacts to hazards.
Flying toward the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, he pointed the helicopter toward one of two 693-feet-high support towers. The towers were clearly visible on the cockpit display when the helicopter was still miles away.
When the on-board computer estimated the helicopter was about 30 seconds from hitting the tower, the system issued an alert: “Warning, obstacle! Warning, obstacle!” Lajeunesse turned away.“I’ve used (the device) for almost 10 years on both airplanes and helicopters, and I would not want to fly an aircraft without it,” he said.