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Sunday, August 1, 2010

Feedback August 2010

1,000-Words Plus

My compliments on your editorial point of view regarding the March 2010 crash of an EMS helicopter in Brownsville, Tenn. (See Editor’s Notebook, June 2010.) Your use of the radar picture was indeed worth “1,000 words,” and was an effective way of highlighting your written point of view. I have no personal connection with the aircraft owner/operator, the hospital or the crew, but I deeply sympathize with all those affected by this accident. I too am baffled as to why this happened after reading and hearing about the details of this crash. I look at the radar picture and keep asking myself “why?” Why did this happen, and why do they keep on happening? I have worked for two different operators of EMS helicopters as a pilot in command, and both emphasize the “three to go, and one to say no” policy. During my crew briefings, I add to that policy by saying to my medical crewmembers that I will never push somebody beyond their comfort zone, that whoever becomes uncomfortable with the situation first, be it on the ground or in flight, that is where we stop. I also wonder if this was in part a system failure, because the operator and hospital would have had a say in this flight being a “go” or “no go,” so what was their involvement in this crash?

I have been flying helicopters for more than 25 years, both military and civilian, and I have been in weather-related situations where I didn’t have the experience to know any better and wound up scaring a few years off my life. Fortunately, I survived these situations and learned some valuable lessons, which have helped guide me. I can remember a few times where I was close enough to my destination to start an approach, but the environment dictated otherwise, the risk wasn’t worth pushing the limits, and I let that be the deciding factor. The desire to finish the flight, known to some as “missionitis,” or “get home-itis,” should never be a factor in anybody’s decision-making process. I can’t help but feel that with this particular accident, at some time prior to or during the flight, somebody should have said: “Stop, this is not worth the risk.” I have read and heard about accidents before involving helicopters, but this one in particular affected me personally like no other has, perhaps because I can relate to the situation through my own experiences. I would like to share a few words with you that were once printed in an Army Flight Fax magazine. I felt they were important enough to remember so I kept the page and had it framed. The words are as follows:

“We should all bear one thing in mind when we talk about a troop who ‘rode one in.’ He called upon the sum of all his knowledge and made a judgment. He believed in it so strongly that he knowingly bet his life on it. That he was mistaken in his judgment is a tragedy, not stupidity. Every supervisor and contemporary who ever spoke to him had an opportunity to influence his judgment, so a little bit of all of us goes in with every troop we lose.” Nobody will ever know what was going on inside that helicopter, in particular the rapid decisions being made with what the pilot and medical crewmembers knew at the time, so I’m trying my best not to second-guess them from my desk chair. I truly understand what they were going through, and what they were trying to do. The tragedy is that they are no longer with us to tell their story. We are all at a loss for their passing. In their memory, I sincerely hope that we all learn from this.

Arthur T. Southwick

CW4, U.S. Army (Ret.)

EMS Pilot

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