By Jan Murray
The Southeast Sun
While it is too early to know for sure what led to a fatal air ambulance helicopter crash March 26, a helicopter crash expert, attorney and author Gary C. Robb said, “If you rule out mechanical malfunction then, obviously, you’re looking at pilot error or a combination of that and the environment and weather.”
National Transportation and Safety Board officials said earlier that it appeared everything (mechanical) was working on the helicopter at the time of the crash, but that the entire investigation will likely take up to a year to complete. A preliminary report is expected next week, according to Susan Stevenson with the NTSB in Washington, D.C.
“With trained investigators, they can look and see (at the crash scene)—based on certain signs and signatures of markings” whether or not the main rotor blade separated before impact, or if the engine was operating by looking for “continuous spin marks” on the engine, Robb said, adding that if there’s no indication of the engine “spinning at impact” then that is a sign that the “helicopter engine stopped in flight.”
Robb said investigators will continue to look at “the man, the machine, and the environment” to eventually determine the cause of the fatal crash. He said investigators will look at the pilot, Chad Hammond, to determine “his qualifications, experience” and whether or not any medical conditions such as “stroke, heart attack or aneurysms” had occurred. Robb also said investigators will look closely at the helicopter, itself, to see if there were “malfunctions or fractures of any component or system in the aircraft.” And, he added, the environment—weather, fixed obstacles that the helicopter could have hit—will also be closely studied.
The weather, at the time of the crash, was reported as inclement and foggy by officials and area residents.
Robb, a nationwide attorney based in Kansas City, Mo., said he was interested in the Haynes Life Flight crash because “it has all the earmarks of what we would we call an utterly preventable crash. It’s sad because, many times, the very conditions (and situations) that create the need for the helicopter…requires the helicopter, itself, to fly through very dangerous conditions.
“So, what we have is one accident, followed by another for the same reasons…Real human beings perished. That’s the true tragedy here,” said Robb. “The point is, is that innocent people got up and brushed their teeth and were alive that morning were not alive to go to sleep that night…It’s a human tragedy, not just that a helicopter crashed.”
The Missouri attorney said he has been advocating “risk assessments of the risks of the helicopter missions” for years so that crews are not put in danger.
Robb said the investigation of such crashes takes a long while “because the NTSB is extremely busy…they need to acquire a lot of information. They need to get information from the manufacturer. They need to find out if this helicopter was certified to fly…They usually do a very thorough and complete job, in my experience.”
Familiar with the Eurocopter AS350—the type helcopter that crashed— and its history of crashes in the past, Robb said he has been involved with “dozens and dozens” of cases involving the aircraft over many years. However, he said, it’s too early to speculate about what has happened in the Coffee County crash in terms of the type aircraft because it’s like a “500 piece puzzle. We have five pieces of that puzzle. We don’t know, yet, what’s going to happen…
“We don’t have the other pieces…Right now, I could only speculate. I could only speculate that, obviously, the fog had something to do with it. The pilot may have become disoriented and lost orientation—spatial disorientation—and (was) flying blind.” He added, however, that until there is more information, there’s no way to come to a conclusion.
Robb does question, however, the operational necessity of the mission and wonders why a ground ambulance wasn’t utilized and a closer medical facility sought.
The patient in the Enterprise crash, Zachary Strickland, was said to be unconscious at the scene with extensive injuries, including a broken leg. Per protocol in situations where there is significant trauma to an accident victim, at some point the decision was made by first responders to call for an air ambulance assist.
Beau Camp with Pilcher’s Ambulance Service in Dothan—not connected to the incident—explained that when there are severe injuries to a victim, perhaps an elongated extraction time or other factors, the medical personnel working the scene must determine if expedited transportation methods—such as air transport—is warranted. Camp said if the patient is conscious and in “their right mind” they can tell rescuers where he/she wants to be taken and any such request would be honored. However, Camp said, to his knowledge, Strickland was, in fact, unconscious, as has been previously reported. Thus, the Alabama Trauma and Health System protocols were activated.