EMS Helicopter Fuel Exhaustion

By Richard N. Aarons
Source: Business & Commercial Aviation
September 01, 2013

As you may have heard by now, the NTSB has asked the FAA to prohibit the use of portable electronic devices (PED) — read smart phones, tablets, etc. — for non operational use by crewmembers at their flight deck duty stations while the aircraft is being operated. This would include FAR Part 135 and 91 Subpart K operations.

The Safety Board also wants Part 121, 135 and 91 Subpart K operators to incorporate into their initial and recurrent pilot training programs and manuals “information on the detrimental effects that distraction due to the nonoperational use of PEDs can have on performance of safety-critical ground and flight operations.”

The latest series of PED recommendations arises from the Safety Board's investigation into the loss of a Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter that crashed on Aug. 26, 2011, in Mosby, Mo., killing all on board — the pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic and patient. Air Methods, doing business as LifeNet in the Heartland, operated the helicopter.

Essentially, the helicopter flew three legs in daylight VFR conditions, ran out of fuel and then crashed at the bottom of a mismanaged autorotation. The Safety Board determined the probable causes were: 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, said the Safety Board, 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 a [company] 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.

While the NTSB has been chasing the PED demon for quite a while, the other identified contributing factors may be more important. Arguably, PEDs can be a distraction; but fatigue, misunderstanding of critical performance factors and inexact training may have more relevancy in the greater scheme of helicopter safety.

The Accident

The helicopter was based at Rosecrans Memorial Airport (STJ), St. Joseph, Mo. When used for EMS flights, the AS350 was equipped with one pilot seat and a single set of controls along with a medical interior kit to accommodate one patient and two medical attendants. During the week before the accident flight, the accident AS350 was reconfigured to conduct night vision goggle (NVG) pilot training. The medical interior had been removed and the copilot's seat and controls installed. While the accident helicopter (N352LN) was used for training, the St Joseph base used another Air Methods Eurocopter AS350 (N101LN) for EMS flights.

The last NVG training flight in N352LN was completed about 0300 on the day of the accident. The NVG instructor told investigators he did not have the helicopter refueled because the EMS pilot coming on duty needed to determine the amount of fuel required after the helicopter had been returned to service in EMS configuration. The EMS duty helicopter was typically loaded with a 70% fuel load that provided about 2 hr. flight time.


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