30 June 2008

How Does This Happen?

At this time I'm hearing 7 dead and 3 injured. A daylight Mid-air collision? What in the world is going on?

Now we're hearing there are 6 dead. One of the flight nurses is alive but critically injured. Two folks that were on the ground trying to help were hurt when something on one of the helicopters exploded. All this is gleaned from News reports and, like the initial report of 7 dead, should be taken with a grain of salt.

But the question remains... how does this happen?
I'm always claustrophobic when I get into an airplane. How in Hell can you be safe in something going that fast if you cannot see out of it?!! I'm just amazed when I climb into the cockpit of an airliner and see the tiny windows on those things... an airplane designed to go 600 miles an hour or so. It's a credit to all airplane pilots we don't have more airplane to airplane Mid-air collisions than we do!

But helicopters...
Most are designed to be like sitting on your front porch while your front porch is zipping along at 1500 feet of altitude. And in a helicopter, you have the added benefit of being able to see THROUGH THE WING! Most even have little "chin bubble" windows in the floor to look through! We chopper folks can see almost everywhere out of our machines!

So how do two helicopters find a way to collide, during daylight hours, in Flagstaff, AZ. where the visibility was probably 200 miles?
It's mind boggling.

Let me try to suggest a scenario:
I don't think they were headed back to the hospital from the same scene... they'd have been aware of, and looking out for one another if that were the case. So here you have two helicopter pilots headed to the hospital in Flagstaff, both thinking they are the only flying thing around for several miles, totally unconcerned about watching out for one another. They are from different helicopter EMS services, so they aren't talking to the same dispatchers. In the middle of Northern Arizona they likely weren't talking on a common "Unicom" frequency announcing their position to other helicopters, 'cause they didn't think anyone else was out there. Does the hospital in Flagstaff answer their radio when called? If it becomes generally recognized a hospital won't answer you when called, my crews will forego that call if they have their hands full caring for a patient.

Then add to this that med-crew eyes were all inside the aircraft doing patient care, and what do you have? Two sets of eyes looking outside the aircraft... the two pilots. That's fine if they are truly looking, which they obviously would have been if they both knew the other aircraft was out there somewhere. I don't think they knew to look.

I've been flying EMS since 1986. There was explosive growth in the industry in 1987, and we, as an industry, had a horrific year accident-wise. Pilots just starting to do a job they were unsure of, some flying unfamiliar equipment, many flying at night without much night familiarity, and competition with other companies suggesting flight in unsuitable weather conditions. 1987 was a terrible year with lots of fatalities. This year is shaping up to be worse.

So what's the solution?
Let me make you a wager...
The FAA is gonna feel pressure to do SOMETHING. And one of the things they'll consider is a device called a "Collision avoidance system". It's another neat electronic instrument to warn pilots of impending danger, and in some situations it has value. But it's another thing that distracts the pilot's attention and forces him to look INSIDE the cockpit rather than OUTSIDE where he should be looking to avoid another whirling set of rotor blades.
I think the emphasis should be on more communication, and more "head on a swivel" outside the cockpit surveying.

So now we wait for information on the "links of the chain"... those things that had to align for this accident to happen. Then we'll wait and see what remedial action is suggested/forced upon operators to try to avoid something similar in the future.

I'm gettin' old.
I've seen too much of this.
My heart aches.

A good report of the accident here.


Detail Medic said...

Thinking of you today...


I thought of you when I first heard the news--you were just writing about this.

emily said...

I went on a patient flight 20 minutes after finding this out. With our recent crash my heart ached while I was concentrating on our REALLY SICK patient who needed us. Needed us to go because he lived so far away from the big hospital. His wife is a nurse and knew the gravity of what we were doing.

I agree. One more gizmo isn't gonna solve it. Complacency is a b*&$h, not that I would even venture a guess as to what happened. It just sucks and my heart is going to go on hurting.

The Old Man said...

The community takes it again, losing part of a small group. Depress not, buddy, you ain't quite ready for a rocker. But the last part of your tour (and the first) are the most dangerous...


If a flight crew ever thinks they're the only ones in the area, there's gonna be an accident.

Greybeard said...

And sadly, TWD
speaks from experience on that subject.
It's gotta hurt Dave.
I'm so sorry.

Anonymous said...

It ain't right sometimes. I'm sorry too. My thoughts and prayers go out to the families and the rescue community.

Andrea Shea King said...

OMG. This is just too terrible to contemplate. Prayers for the victims' families and for you chopper pilots up there who carry the responsibility on your shoulders to get your px and med team there safely.


OlePrairiedog said...

I'm glad that YOU are always a mile ahead of the aircraft. Keep a watch out for those who are up and locked. Be safe.

cary said...

I'm thinking you have the right theory, GB - two different units, two different accidents. No communications.

IMHO, since there is only one place that handles trauma traffic in Flagstaff (Flagstaff Medical Center) their comm center should be looked at. Was anyone on the comm center desk? Was anyone on the ground aware that there were two flights coming in at the same time? The ground control should have been at the forefront of watching out for these guys - if for no other reason, to let them know the other was up there.

My thoughts and prayers are with all of you who fly the patients and keep them safe.

ProPilots said...

Greybeard, although those little devices are indeed one more thing that brings your attention inside. I really like the fact that Kandy can look down and with a glance get a bearing and distance from the other aircraft out there trying to run into her.

It sure has helped in my 600MPH airplane with those little windows. Specially flying around on a VMC day in Florida. I've got 20/20 but just can't see those little dots 5 miles away and closing.

Also without a doubt a litte communication could have prevented that tragedy.