3 Dead in Medical Helicopter Crash

A medical helicopter crashed in a thunderstorm in western Tennessee early Thursday, killing a pilot and two nurses.  Another medical helicopter had declined to make a flight in the area at the time because of the weather.

Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt in Nashville said the flight crashed in a field near Brownsville around 6 a.m. CDT.

Haywood County Sheriff Melvin Bond said nearby factory workers reported seeing a large burst of lightning, followed by an orange glow in the area of the crash.

He said the helicopter crew was communicating with its base when radio contact was lost. The pilot had given no indication of a problem, he said.

“It was totally burnt,” Bond said of the wreckage. Fire-blackened debris could be seen spread across part of the field and one rotor blade stuck straight up from the ground.

Authorities said the helicopter had flown a patient from Parsons to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and was returning to its base in Brownsville when it went down a few miles from its destination.

“The pilot was not in contact with air traffic controllers at the time of the crash and there had been no indication of problems,” said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth, Texas. Lunsford said the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.

Julie Heavrin, a spokeswoman for Air Evac Lifeteam, said from company headquarters in West Plains, Mo., that the weather at the time was considered too dangerous for their helicopters to fly.

Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the NTSB, said a team was leaving Washington to examine the crash site. He said the team will be on site for three to five days and a preliminary report would be released about 10 days later.

The flight was operated by Hospital Wing, a nonprofit air medical transport service with headquarters in Memphis and branches in Oxford, Miss., and Brownsville. It operates five helicopters.

Jamie Carter, a company board member, said the helicopter was a Eurocraft Astar model and one of the newest in Hospital Wing’s fleet.

The crash scene is near U.S. 70 and about 55 miles northeast of Memphis. The site is an agricultural area with dirt roads and few houses nearby.

Improving the safety of emergency medical services flights has been on the NTSB’s “most wanted improvements” list since 2008, a year when the industry suffered a record number of fatalities.

There were 41 people killed in 11 EMS helicopter accidents between December 2007 and February 2010, according to an NTSB report.

It said the pressure that crews face to respond quickly during difficult flight conditions, like darkness or bad weather, has led to increased fatal accidents.

Last fall, the NTSB urged the government to impose stricter controls on emergency helicopter operators, including requiring the use of autopilots, night-vision systems and flight data recorders.

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