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 Randy Mains My 2 Cents Worth

On September 30th three more names were added to the growing number of air medical air crash survivors in America, when a CareFlite Agusta 109 helicopter had what was euphemistically described as a “hard landing” by the company’s CEO.

I was seriously shocked when I saw the pictures of that hard landing.  The aircraft was lying on its side, nose ripped off, blades gone, tail rotor nowhere to be seen, the tailboom separated from the body of the airframe and the landing gear had not even been extended.  I thought, “That was the Mother of all hard landings.”

With those three names added to the tally of crash survivors, the number now stands at 600, yes, 600 individuals, a number that would nearly fill two Boeing 777s.  Add to that the 358 people who have perished in HEMS helicopter crashes over the years and you could fill an additional triple-seven.  It’s nuts!

Here is how the NBC Dallas-Fort Worth news station reported that crash:   “A pilot and two medics were injured after the medical transport helicopter they were in crashed in rural Central Texas. The helicopter was traveling to pick up a patient when the pilot tried to divert to a local airport because of limited visibility due to bad weather.”

The purpose of this article isn’t to argue semantics or to try to guess the cause of that accident.  What is important to note is that this accident occurred in bad weather, a primary factor in the majority of the HEMS accidents over the years.  With that fact in mind, my purpose is to offer a tool you can put into your personal survival kit, metaphorically speaking, to hopefully help you prevent a similar crash from occurring.  The tool is called an Enroute Decision Point, or EDP, developed and proven under the most rugged of conditions by members of the National EMS Pilots Association.

FAA regulations and company SOPs are written mainly for our safety and for the safety of those who fly with us.  Going against company SOPs or the regulations set out by the FAA, like for example disregarding the enroute weather minimums and pressing on regardless until you eventually run out of options, sets you up for possible disaster.

The beauty of the Enroute Decision Point is that it can be used by any pilot no matter what job they are doing.

Simply put, EDP is used to establish airspeed and altitude limitations for cruise flight.  If at any time during that flight a limit is reached, do one of three things:

1) Turn around, 2) Land, or  3) Transition to IFR.  But, DO NOT CONTINUE!

Think of an EDP as being similar to a decision altitude on an ILS.  On an ILS, when you reach that point and don’t have the runway environment in sight, a decision must be made to abandon the approach and go around.  In the case of an Enroute Decision Point once your predetermined set of criteria are reached you either turn around, land or elect to go IFR.  It’s simple, but effective.

NEMSPA recommends that if you select 30 knots less than cruise speed, or a minimum altitude 300’ above ground level day or 500’ above ground level night, or upon descending to the minimum enroute cruising altitude that you’ve chosen, there is no question you’ve reached that Enroute Decision Point and you must choose one of the three decision options previously mentioned.

Thinking back on my six-and-a-half years as a HEMS pilot in the early days, I used to avoid getting caught out in bad weather simply by relying on a little micro-switch that would trip in my head when my voice on the radio and intercom would go up five octaves as if my underwear had suddenly shrunk six sizes.  It was at that precise point I knew it was time to turn around.  The Enroute Decision Point sure beats the heck out THAT method.

On the NEMSPA website, the Enroute Decision Point is explained like this:  “The EDP protocol has been field proven to be a simple, yet very effective tool that has been designed to minimize the possibility of helicopter CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain) accidents caused by continuing flight into adverse and/or deteriorating weather conditions. NEMSPA believes, and pilots have confirmed, that this protocol can be an effective combatant to both internal and external pressures placed upon pilots to complete flights in marginal weather conditions.”

So let’s all take the opportunity to learn from this most recent HEMS accident.  Establish an EDP that suits your comfort level, pack it into your personal piloting survival kit, keep it with you always, and doggedly stick to it as rigidly as you would a decision altitude on an ILS.  Doing so gives you an ‘out’ so that you can break the error chain early, before you are put in a position where all your options have evaporated until you end up suffering a “hard landing” like CareFlight experienced on the morning of September 30th 2012, resulting in three people nearly losing their lives and being transported to a hospital intensive care unit.

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