What Can FAA & NTSB do to Reduce HEMS Accidents?

In the past week, we have had two fatal crashes of helicopters providing ’emergency medical services’. Historical data shows that many of these ‘HEMS’ fatal accidents happen at nighttime, when flying in poor weather, especially in dark (moonless) conditions.

20150312.. HEMS crash, west of Eufaula Lake, mapSuch was the case with this latest accident, on March 12th. A pilot and two crewmembers were flying from Tulsa back to their EagleMed base at McAlester, Oklahoma [KMLC]. The flight ended up crashed in terrain to the west of Eufaula Lake (green box area), minutes prior to their planned arrival at McAlester.

On this particular night, in the area around McAlester, the moon (which was waning and illuminated at 63%) rose at 1:03AM, nearly two hours after the accident. Thus, it was a dark night.

Also on this night, the weather was deteriorating. When weather is poor, helicopter pilots choose to fly at lower altitudes, to stay below the bottom cloud layer. In sufficiently dark night conditions and at low altitudes, even a seasoned pilot may not see a tall tree, an antenna tower, or a mountain until the last second, if at all. Such conditions make helicopter transport far more risky than ground transport.

In the HEMS industry, company owners rake in huge profits if they can get their crews to be the first medical transport at the scene of an accident. But, they also earn large fees (exceeding $10,000)contracting with hospitals to fly patients from point A to point B. The problem is, the profit motive is so intense that many pilots have found it difficult to say ‘no’, even in the worst flying conditions. And, this problem is amplified by FAA’s rules for helicopter flying, which allow pilots to fly at any level – right down to the surface – to dodge declining weather. In many of the resulting accidents, the helicopter proceeded in declining visibility, to lower and lower altitudes, then impacted guy lines that support antenna towers.

And then there is the media coverage. When these HEMS accidents happen, the news coverage tends to focus superficially on the physical tragedy, while failing to investigate a key question: was there a real benefit, and was it necessary, to use a helicopter for the specific incident? The media tends to not ask these questions and, instead, waits for FAA and/or NTSB to comment about the risks involved. The problem, though, is that both agencies are pressured to stay quiet, so as not to undermine the profit potential of the HEMS industry.

Also, the media tends to paint the crash victims as heroic in their service. We are led to believe that others would have died if the HEMS crew had not selflessly risked life and limb to respond. In truth, though, accident histories have shown time and again that most nighttime HEMS accidents would have been avoided – and patients would have been just fine, too – if pilots had simply accepted the real risks and elected to wait for conditions to improve.

FAA is very much to blame for the fact these HEMS accidents continue to kill so many in the United States. FAA has the authority to regulate this industry, but chooses not to. For decades, the pattern has been to delay tighter rules and keep the safety rules fuzzy and ambiguous. Chronically, FAA does their best to not interfere with this or any aviation industry.

In this latest fatal HEMS accident, it is again tragic that a pilot was lost, that two others were injured, and that families and friends have been made to suffer. But, if we are to move beyond repeats of these accidents, we need real and timely information. If there is evidence suggesting decisions were made that were too risky, that evidence needs to be revealed to the Public ASAP.

It would be helpful if the FAA and NTSB became more assertive in sharing information about these HEMS accidents. Perhaps, within 48-hours of each accident, they should post the preliminary information that helps the news media (and readers) to assess answers to the following questions:

  • What was the purpose of the flight? I.e., was it for routine transfer of a stable patient, or was it an accident response?
  • What was the specific urgency that necessitated use of a helicopter instead of ground transportation? Or, was there no benefit to a patient?
  • Was weather possibly a factor (i.e., what were the nearest reported weather conditions)?
  • Was darkness possibly a factor (i.e., what were the known conditions)?

See also:

October 4, 2014: A Fatal HEMS accident in Wichita Falls

20141004.. crash fire pic, Wichita FallsShortly before 2:00AM local time, an emergency ambulance helicopter crashed in Wichita Falls, TX, killing the patient and injuring the pilot and both flight nurses.

20141004.. United Regional Health, helipad and reported accident siteNews reports indicate that the Bell 206 helicopter, based in Duncan, OK, had been dispatched to move a 26-yr-old man who had been shot in the Waurika, OK area. Google maps indicates a ground ambulance would have been a fairly direct drive, 38-miles in just forty minutes, to get to the hospital in Wichita Falls.

Here is a clip from an online satellite view. The crash location (red circle) is roughly one block from the helipad (smaller orange circle) at United Regional Health Care System.

Weather appears to have not been a factor. The METAR sequence at [KSPS] shows clear skies, calm winds, good visibility, termperature 51.

The Air Evac Lifeteam website describes the company as the largest independently owned and operated air ambulance company in the U.S. Based in O’Fallon, MO, it serves 15 states with more than 110 helicopters, operating primarily out of rural bases in the Midwest and South.

The company’s recent accident history includes (click on dates to view NTSB report):

Note that nearly all of this company’s fatal accidents have occurred in the middle of the night, in darkness. The only fatal accident in the daytime was due to a mechanical failure (a defective rotor disintegrated, in a mid-day flight). Fatigue may be an issue, too; the pilots are routinely assigned 12-hour shifts.

Why fly at these dangerous hours? Most likely, for the ‘golden trout’ profits. A 2009 news posting at EMSflightCrew.com had this quote:

…A typical HEMS flight can generate a payment of $20,000 or more. To garner these payments, operators have an implicitly built-in incentive to fly — despite such proven deadly factors as marginal weather at night. One HEMS pilot described every patient as a golden trout. “We need to go get these trout,” he said, because of the generous Medicare reimbursement….

This needs to change, and we depend on FAA to make this change happen.

See also:

July Was a Bad Month for U.S. Aviation Accidents

In July 2014, there were 34 fatal aviation accidents in the U.S, killing 50 people. This compares to 21 aviation accidents killing 39 people in July 2013.

This pattern is particularly disturbing because, just a few months ago, we were on course for a marked reduction in aviation accidents for the year. In the first quarter, fatal accidents declined from 52 to 33, and fatalities declined from 97 to 58 year-to-year. But since then, the history suggests 2014Q1 was an anomaly, made safe by pilots simply doing a lot less flying.

Fatal Accidents:

The increase in July may be random and not statistically significant, but if the increase indicates a growing problem, what is driving this change?

  • Is it worsening weather? Are we seeing more intense weather phenomena, perhaps related to climate change? Maybe. The North Captiva Island crash on 7/16/2014 appears to have been weather-related. But, on the other hand, this accident would not have happened had the pilot decided to NOT fly so close to (and possible even within) a thunderstorm.
  • Is it related to aviation events? Partially. There were three fatal accidents flying to the EAA AirVenture at Oshkosh (see 7/26/2014, 7/28/2014, & 7/31/2014). There was a midair collision in Idaho, apparently related to a back-country fly-in (see 7/7/2014).
  • Which particular sectors stand out for more accidents? There were three fatal accidents involving agricultural planes (see 7/1/2014, 7/18/2014, and 7/23/2014). Another HEMS multi-fatality happened during dark middle-of-night conditions (see 7/17/2014). But, the one sector that really increased was regular GA recreational flying, including both factory-built and experimental aircraft, typically killing one or two, most of whom were retirement-aged males.
  • Is it related to the economy and the cost of fuel? Possibly. Just like drivers/homeowners with automobiles, when money is tight, repairs are delayed and minor risks ignored until they become larger risks. It is also interesting to note that during the first two quarters of 2014, fatal accidents and total fatalities were substantially below 2013. A simple explanation might be costs are taking a big bite out of flying interest. It costs money to keep a plane ready to fly, so perhaps the pilots are delaying the start of their flying season until the weather warms up, and THEN getting out and flying more intensively. This may put them a bit out of practice.

It seems reasonable to expect that lack of pilot practice might increase accident rates. Not just physical practices like thorough pre-flight inspections, but also the critical mental practice of making the key decision: do I fly or do I wait?

An Example of Texting as a Fatal Distraction to a HEMS Flight

Here’s an article reviewing an NTSB investigation in which a 34-yr-old EMS helicopter pilot had been texting prior to and during a flight that crashed and killed the pilot, two EMS nurses, and the patient being transferred between hospitals.

Here’s a link to a 4/9/13 abstract prepared by NTSB. This was a patient transfer of roughly 75-miles, from a hospital in Bethany, MO to another hospital in Liberty, MO. An interstate freeway (I-35) provides a direct route for a quick use of a ground ambulance. The NTSB report does not identify if there was a pressing need to use the more expensive (and more dangerous, plus more profitable to the HEMS company) helicopter ambulance instead of a ground ambulance. The pilot knew he was critically low on fuel and took off anyway, planning to land just minutes from the destination hospital to refuel. Fuel exhaustion occurred roughly one mile short of his intended fuel stop.

Here is a link to an earlier aiR POST related to a fatal HEMS crash six months ago:

Are EMS Helicopter Profits Causing Excessive Risk and Fatal Accidents?

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause(s) of this accident to be the pilot’s failure to confirm that the helicopter had adequate fuel on board to complete the mission before making the first departure, his improper decision to continue the mission and make a second departure after he became aware of a critically low fuel level, and his failure to successfully enter an autorotation when the engine lost power due to fuel exhaustion.

Contributing to the accident were:

  1. the pilot’s distracted attention due to personal texting during safety-critical ground and flight operations,
  2. his degraded performance due to fatigue,
  3. the operator’s lack of a policy requiring that an operational control center specialist be notified of abnormal fuel situations, and
  4. the lack of practice representative of an actual engine failure at cruise airspeed in the pilot’s autorotation training in the accident make and model helicopter.


The aiREPORT: [2013Q3, week-12]

aiREPORT is a weekly collection of notes and links to news items relevant to aviation impacts and FAA reform. It is provided as a research tool…

Third Quarter, Week #12: September 15 — September 21, 2013


Top AvNews Story: a major PR greenwash, in FAA’s announced plan to spend $40M to develop fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. Given the large energy requirements of aviation vs. the relatively low energy potential of hydrogen, these fuel cells appear to be entirely impractical for aviation.


  • 9/16/13: The Department of Energy (DOE) is opening a National Fuel Cell Technology Evaluation Center to further development of fuel cells and hydrogen technologies. [article]
  • … NY Senator Charles Schumer called on the FAA to choose an alliance known as NUAIR as one of the six drone test sites. NUAIR is said to include forty organizations in New York and Massachusetts. [article]
  • 9/20/13: Allegiant Air Travel reportedly grounded half of its MD80 fleet on Friday, after discovering they had failed to do annual inspections of their emergency evacuation chutes. [article]
  • 9/21/13: An emergency helicopter transporting a patient had a forced landing near Canton, MS, injuring the pilot’s back and sending the two medical crew members and the patient on to the hospital. The helicopter was operated by MedStat, which has bases in Winona and near Columbus. [article]

Airports in the News:

  • New Orleans, LA (Lakefront Airport [KNEW]): a ribbon-cutting ceremony will happen on 9/28, for the dedication of the restored art deco Terminal Building. It was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina flooding in 2005. The 1933 structure was vastly ‘modernized’ in 1964, and many of the early architectural details were removed. They are being restored in the reconstruction. [article]
  • Birmingham, AL (Shuttlesworth Airport [KBHM]): FAA is awarding $8.8Ma part of the $201M airport terminal expansion aprojects. The local Congressperson quickly praised the awards. $6M will go toward security upgrades, while $2.8M are ‘VALE’ funds, to go toward low emission ground vehicles. The busiest airport in Alabama, KBHM has an FAA tower open 24/7 and averages one takeoff every ten minutes. [article]
  • Wiley Ford, WV (Greater Cumberland Regional Airport [KCBE]): FAA has awarded a grant worth $2.3M, to be used to acquire six parcels of land, remove obstructions, and relocate some taxiway threshold areas. The airport has a $59M development plan, with a goal to complete it by 2017. FAA funds are expected, at the current 90% subsidy rate. This airport in western Maryland averages twenty takeoffs per day, mostly for local pattern traffic. It is the home base for 55 aircraft (42 single-prop, five twin-prop, two jets, one helicopter, and five gliders). If the full airport plan is developed, the FAA will have invested nearly one million dollars per private plane at the airport, and most of this money will be from airline passenger taxes. [article]
  • Boston, MA [KBOS]: A flood of noise complaints in Milton has prompted FAA to spend an extra six months studying the impact of a flight path change out of Logan Airport.The NextGen change, implemented in June, sends more departing flights from Runway 33L over Milton and neighboring towns. The routes are concentrated more precisely, this magnifying noise impact for those who live under the routes. Thus, in the first month, complaints increased six-fold. [article]
  • Chatham, MA (Chatham Municipal Airport, [KCQX]): an FAA Deputy Regional Administrator speaks at a town meeting where roughly a hundred residents expressed opposition to the noise impact of local parachute operations. An ongoing conflict at this location, right at the elbow of Cape Cod. [article]

Links to Articles:

9-18-2013FAA rule change will make things more noisy
A blog by and for residents of Queens. They are impacted by noise from both LaGuardia and JFK Airports…. “You can’t hear yourself think because every time it stops, it starts again,” one resident said. The Federal Aviation Administration is planning to change its rules so it can change flight plans without any environmental review. The rule change will lead to more noise pollution for Queens and Nassau County, Rep. Steve Israel said. “This is a bad rule for our quality of life, it’s a bad rule for our environment, it’s a bad rule for people who live in the vicinity of New York’s airports,” Israel said. The congressman also relabeled the FAA “The Federal Arrogant Administration.”
9-18-2013Risk of Flight Delays Returns as FAA Weighs Controller Furloughs
Alan Levin at Businessweek writes about what various aviation officials are saying, in anticipation of the new Fiscal Year. Levin notes: “Seventy-one percent of the FAA’s operations budget — a $9 billion pot that pays for air-traffic control, safety inspections and aircraft certification — goes to salaries, according to CRS. Air-traffic controllers are among the highest paid government employees, earning an average of $108,000 per year, according to 2010 data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Huerta has told Congress it will be difficult to reach spending goals without furloughs. The FAA employs about 45,000.” Actually, FAA salaries may average much higher than that. Controllers at the slowest ATC facilities top out around $100K, but controllers at the biggest facilities and the busier towers top out well over $120K/year. In fact, hundreds of controllers max out on the federal payscale at ~$180K. And, and even higher percentage of managers are maxing out their federal pay.
9-16-2013Tax cut spurs job growth in Indiana
Officials from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and top Indiana Senate and House leaders gathered inside the expansive hangar of Eagle Creek Aviation Services here Friday to mark the nearly-instant success of a tax reduction for general aviation businesses. The bill passed earlier this year and eliminated a gas tax that can save aircraft owners about 40 cents per gallon, as well as a 7% tax on aircraft parts and labor. The taxes were stifling Indiana’s aviation businesses, as aircraft owners bypassed the state to avoid hefty fuel and repair taxes, according to GA officials. [Note: Pennsylvania passed similar legislation, too; what happens when all states give all aviators tax breaks?]
9-15-2013FAA cuts red tape for UAS at Yosemite Fires
GANews posts an article that has FAA working hand-in-hand with the military, NPS and California authorities to approve use of a drone to help in the fires. Not discussed is why NPS and Interior are not simply allowed to tell FAA they have an emergency, have shut down the airspace, and will fly drones if they need to.

The aiReport …a link to the full report…

Christine Negroni’s articles about HEMS

One of the most informative aviation-related blogs online today is ‘Flying Lessons’, by Christine Negroni.

Started in late 2009, ‘Flying Lessons’ covers all sorts of aviation content, from light/fun/curious travel details, to very serious air safety issues. The latter has included numerous articles about the profit/risk imbalance (and lack of adequate regulation) in the helicopter EMS industry. If you are concerned about the HEMS problem, be sure to read these posts.

An 11/16/10 article has the title Helicopter Ambulances:  The better-safe-than-sorry scare tactic. Ms. Negroni notes that the rate of HEMS accidents is so high that, comparatively, it would be equal to an airline disaster every day … and yet this level of carnage is accepted as the cost of doing business. She also provides a clear example of how HEMS fees appear to be at the root of the problem; how the profits gleaned from exorbitant billings are causing safety failures (her example includes a billing, for an unnecessary night-time helicopter transport, charging a $12,150 base rate and an additional $135 per mile flown). Here is a copy of the bulk of her article…

…I’m talking about the business of medical transport and the price paid by patients who are moved by air.

Last week, Nanci Wilson of KXAN in Austin, Texas reported on the case of Oscar Vaz. His 12-year old daughter bumped her head at summer camp in June. Now that’s not news; everyone knows that bumps, bruises and bug bites are part of the camp experience like campfires and ghost stories. Only in this case the camp called for an ambulance, and it wasn’t the four-wheeled variety that showed up it was a helicopter. After a brief visit to the hospital, the girl was released back to camp with a clean bill of health and not long after that, Oscar Vaz received a bill for $16,000.

What the better-safe-than-sorry philosophy costs

Oscar is one smart daddy and he started to wonder just what motivated such a drastic response to a simple bump on the noggin. What factors led to the decision to bundle the child into a helicopter and on to Dell Children’s Medical Center?

Critical attention from a doctor couldn’t have been the issue since the helicopter flew right past two hospitals located closer to the camp. And there was no stated need for some highly sophisticated medical technology only available at the medical center in Austin. Oscar was mystified.

“If it is important enough to call an air ambulance, then why not go to the hospital that’s 30 minutes away?” he asked me rhetorically when he called this summer.

I didn’t know Oscar then. He came across some of the many articles I’ve written on this subject when he started researching air ambulances. He got in touch because he was trying to understand the money machine that is today’s for-profit air ambulance business.

But Oscar didn’t need much from me. He was already asking the right questions. When the bill arrived, Oscar asked why the 9-11 dispatchers called – then cancelled – Starflight, the Travis County public service helicopter, a taxpayer-supported service which would have cost considerably less, and instead dispatched the for-profit air ambulance Air Evac? If speed was the issue, why did it take the 90 minutes to get the child to the Austin hospital which is only a 50 minute drive from the camp?

Surely, Oscar thought, there must be some standard operating procedure used for determining when an air ambulance is needed and when it is not especially considering that medical helicopters are themselves, not particularly safe.

What Oscar didn’t know – and if you ask me, it’s a good thing for his peace of mind that he did not – is that the period of time in which his daughter was flown; the hours between 10 pm and 6 am or what’s called backside of the clock are the most dangerous hours to fly by helicopter medivac. Nearly half of all the EMS helicopter crashes take place during this time and they are almost four times more likely to result in fatalities than helicopter accidents occurring during the day. So Oscar and his daughter had two things to be thankful for; No medical problems and no unhappy landing.

But there is that whopping bill from Air Evac. And I think that Oscar, and others who have been transported by air unnecessarily feel companies like Air Evac are playing them for fools.

Their complaints, however, always get reduced to the argument that they are better-safe-than-sorry, that air transport is worth the cost because, after all, a life is on the line. This is the bread and butter scare tactic used by the helicopter ambulance industry and you don’t have to go farther than the comment section on this blog to read the endless varieties on that theme.

But one thing aviation does well is the cost benefit analysis and this better-safe-than-sorry argument doesn’t hold up to that scrutiny. So before Americans go any farther embracing the booming business of air ambulances, its critically important to analyze how the industry got cross-wise with safety and study the programs that seem to be doing things right….

Another article, posted 10/18/11, has the title And the (woomph, woomph, woomph) Beat Goes On. It describes a powerful safety presentation by former air ambulance pilot Randy Mains, crusading for effective safety regulation in the HEMS industry. Here is an excerpt:

…What’s unambiguous is the fact that patients and medical workers have been killed in these helicopters by the score.

Randy+mains.jpgAnd here to help you visualize that is former air ambulance pilot, Randy Mains who spent this morning bringing the truth on home at the Air Medical Transport Conference in St. Louis. First he distributed to the audience hundreds of envelopes telling the medical aviators to just hang on, they could open them shortly.

Randy is on a mission making speeches and writing about how to make HEMS operations safer.

“I have watched in despair for over 32 years as the HEMS system in the U.S. has become more and more dangerous to where it is now officially the most dangerous job in America .”

Finally, the people in the audience with envelopes were asked to stand, 346 of them, about half of people in the room. Inside each envelope was the name of someone who died in a medical helicopter crash.

Randy’s wife Kaye described what happened next. “All you could hear was the tearing of envelopes. People really were in the moment and looking around, absorbing it. It was about two minutes with people standing. There was an overwhelming feeling.”

“It was very satisfying, “ Randy said, describing the stunt – a bit of dramatics intended to energize the people who do not want to imagine their own names on such a slip of paper in the future.

“We must design our programs in the States like they do it in Europe and Canada where they have excellent safety records,” he said ticking off the requirements outside of the United States; two pilots with current instrument-ratings and night vision goggles, in twin-engine aircraft. “Aviation safety doesn’t care about egos, bottom lines or competition. It only works if it is done right.”

<< <> <<>> <> >>

Use this link HEMS articles at ‘Flying Lessons’ to see Christine Negroni’s other HEMS posts.

“…please don’t call the casualties “heroes” or “fallen angels”. Call them evidence that the public has been bamboozled into believing we need to be flying around by air even when the injury is not life threatening, just in case. And call them victims of an industry that’s off-the-radar, fueled with cash and powerfully incentivized to keep on doing it just this way.”

– from a 7/23/10 post, at ‘Flying Lessons’


Are EMS Helicopter Profits Causing Excessive Risk and Fatal Accidents?

Another EMS helicopter tragedy, and three more are killed. This time, an 11:16PM crash near a school in Manchester, KY, while landing. NTSB investigators should soon announce if they found any problems with visibility (some witnesses reported patchy dense fog), or if there is evidence of either a mechanical failure or impacting an object (tree, pole or powerline?).

Here is a list of the four most-recent fatal EMS helicopter crashes (with links to NTSB reports). Note that non-fatal crashes are not included:
  • 6-6-13: (3) die in Kentucky
  • 2-22-13: (2) die in Oklahoma
  • 1-2-13: (3) die in Iowa
  • 12-10-12: (3) die in Illinois

These EMS helicopter accidents happen far too frequently. The most galling part is that past accident investigations have revealed some troubling industry details, yet nothing has changed. Specifically, helicopter patient transfers are worth big bucks – tens of thousands of dollars – so, there is an incentive to fly when flying is really not necessary. Such as, for patient transfers from hospital or nursing home to another location; cases where everything is stable and a far more economical patient transfer can happen (and more often than not WOULD HAPPEN if the family or other payees had a say).

This latest crash is reported to be without a patient; i.e., the pilot and two other crew members were returning from a mission. NTSB needs to take a close look at the history on these accidents and ask: how many of these are happening because the helicopter is being used instead of a ground vehicle, and when there is no clear urgency? How is the pay structured in these helicopter EMS programs? Are the incentives to fly, even in poor weather or dark conditions, such that crews incur more danger than they should? Is the risk for profit or for saving lives? And, is FAA doing anything to ensure helicopter EMS program risks are properly minimized?

As noted in a 2009 news posting at EMSflightCrew.com:

…A typical HEMS flight can generate a payment of $20,000 or more. To garner these payments, operators have an implicitly built-in incentive to fly — despite such proven deadly factors as marginal weather at night. One HEMS pilot described every patient as a golden trout. “We need to go get these trout,” he said, because of the generous Medicare reimbursement….
<< <> <<>> <> >>

It is one thing (and heroic) to fly into danger to truly save a life; it is just stupid (and greedy) to fly into hazard when a safer and more cost-effective alternative is available. Three precious lives were lost, and more families have been plunged into grief (again). This did not have to happen.

Let’s hope FAA and NTSB will be thorough and fully responsive to this tragedy, so this will not happen again.

An Angel Flight Tragedy in Ephratah

A tragic crash happened last Friday, when a Map locate Ephratah, New Yrok.Piper Seneca (twin engine) evidently began to disintegrate in the air, scattering debris and taking three lives in upstate New York. The flight was returning from Boston (Hanscom Field) to Rome, NY.

The 70-yr-old pilot was reportedly a volunteer, providing free medical-related flights, in this case to Frank and Evelyn Amerosa, a couple from Utica, NY. Frank was a 64-yr-old retired trucker, and had been diagnosed with brain cancer a year ago; Evelyn was a 58-yr-old community life leader, who cared for the elderly at a Masonic Care evelynpic.bmp Community. Many there referred to her as a ‘butterfly’ for her cheerful, bubbly energy.

Reading about the crash victims in an online article posted by the Utica Observer Dispatch, I could not help but feel: while all accidents are tragic, this one seems to stand out a bit more.

<< <> <<>> <> >>

As always, NTSB will investigate, though it may be a year or two before they reveal their findings.

This tragic accident has a lot in common with the ongoing concerns about emergency medical service (EMS) flights. A key difference, of course, is that EMS flights typically extract huge fees from crash victims and others, while Angel Flight provides a free service. But, regardless of the amount of money exchanged, even if no money changes hands, we all depend on FAA to regulate aviation safety. It is not acceptable for the airlines to fly passengers using defective equipment; likewise, it is not acceptable for volunteer flight missions in private aircraft to potentially fail to comply with safety standards.

Angel Flight promotes a program in which free flying services are provided by wonderful volunteers. Those services must be fully supported with FAA’s oversight and expertise. The tragedy of this crash will only multiply, if NTSB fails to identify all opportunities for improvement.

What the Investigation Needs to Include:

NTSB needs to do their job, so that FAA can best do its job: helping all aviators, including Angel Flight, to safely fulfill their larger mission. Here is a short list, a few of the questions that NTSB needs to investigate:

  1. What role did weather play in this accident? The radar depicted at Flightaware indicates possible flight hazards, as the flight appeared to crash while entering the eastern edge of a line of painted weather activity.
  2. Are nonprofits such as Angel Flight, who provide volunteer flight services, exempted from any certification requirements, as would be required by a commercial air taxi conducting this same flight? I.e., are requirements identical for equipment, pilot, and any other required certifications?
  3. If the certification requirements are lower for these volunteer flight services, how exactly are the safety requirements reduced, and what stops FAA from correcting this difference?
  4. Given that Angel Flight does solicit and collect public donations, it seems reasonable to expect their program does provide cost of fuel and/or other reimbursements. Does their operation include a certificate, filed with FAA, that clearly declares what costs are reimbursed, what other monies may be disbursed to any or all ‘volunteer pilots’, etc.?
  5. To what extent do the ‘volunteer pilots’ benefit with the accumulation of flight hours needed toward a benchmark, such as eligibility for employment with a major airline? Or, put a bit differently, what selection criteria (minimum hours, certifications, commercial experience, etc.) are used by a nonprofit such as Angel Flight to ensure their pilots are fully dedicated volunteers, not just trying to build hours?
  6. To what extent does FAA become involved in evaluating nonprofit programs? For example, while Angel Flight may be an extremely virtuous nonprofit, what is to stop an unscrupulous operator from setting up a nonprofit that solicits huge amounts of public donations, and allows the operator to take home substantial personal profits, while concealing an unsafe and otherwise shoddy operation?

I want to reiterate that these questions are not intended to question the performance or value of any existing aviation nonprofits (such as Angel Flight NE), or any of the many volunteer pilots. The fact is, Angel Flight NE may be one of the most outstanding programs in aviation today, and it looks at this point that a 70-yr-old pilot lost his life while combining his love for flying with a wonderful capacity to help others. But, there may also be volunteer-driven aviation nonprofits that FAA is failing to support – or worse, failing to regulate – which may be creating unacceptable risks for unsuspecting people. So, let’s all hope that NTSB will be thorough in their Ephratah investigation and help FAA to seize all opportunities to learn from this tragedy.