EMS Helicopter Fuel Exhaustion

By Richard N. Aarons
Source: Business & Commercial Aviation

The pilot said he would refuel at GPH with the patient on board. “I don't want to run short and I don't want to run into that 20-min. reserve if I don't have to . . . We'll take off. I'll see how much gas I have when I go and I'll call you when we're in the air.”

Neither the pilot nor the busy communication specialist discussed contacting the Air Methods Operational Control Center (OCC) to inform the OCC of the low fuel situation or the changed flight route. (The NTSB believes operational specialists might have overridden the pilot's decision to depart Harrison County.)

Minutes later, the flight nurse and flight paramedic arrived back at the helicopter and loaded the patient into the helicopter. At 1811, the helicopter lifted off and the pilot reported via radio to AirCom that he had 45 min. of fuel and four persons on board and was en route to GPH. About 1813, the pilot requested that AirCom contact the FBO at GPH to indicate that the helicopter was inbound for fuel, and that was done.

At 1815, the AirCom communication specialist notified the AirCom supervisor that the helicopter was low on fuel and would be refueling with the patient on board at GPH. About 1827, AirCom notified the pilot via radio that the fuel arrangement had been made at GPH. The pilot acknowledged the radio transmission. It was the last recorded transmission from the pilot.

The helicopter headed directly toward GPH cruising between 400 and 600 ft. AGL with an average ground speed of 111 to 116 kt. At 1841, the last satellite tracking system position recorded was about 0.9 nm from the accident site and showed the helicopter was at 373 ft. AGL with a 116-kt. ground speed. When the pilot did not report arriving at GPH, AirCom called the FBO, and the wreckage was located shortly thereafter in a farm field about 1 nm from the approach end of Runway 18 at GPH. There were no witnesses to the accident.

The aircraft structure was heavily fragmented and scattered along a 100-ft.-long debris path. No one had survived. The damage to the rotor blades was consistent with a low rotor rpm at impact. Initial impact was about 40-deg. nose-low at high speed. There was no post-impact fire. Indeed, no fuel was located at the accident site other than a liter or so in the fuel system plumbing. The evidence was consistent with a loss of engine power due to fuel exhaustion. Engine manufacturer metallurgic studies suggest impact must have occurred within the first 10 sec. after flameout.

Human Factors

The pilot held a commercial certificate with rotorcraft-helicopter and instrument-helicopter ratings. His second-class medical certificate had no limitations. He joined Air Methods in September 2010 after serving in the Army as Boeing AH-64 Apache helicopter PIC, but had no previous civil commercial flight experience.

His total rotorcraft flight time was about 2,207 hr. He flew 18 hr. within the 30 days before the accident and 74 hr. within the previous 90 days. The pilot had accumulated a total of 104 flight hours in the Eurocopter AS350 B2 and 32 flight hours in the Eurocopter AS350 B3 between Oct. 10, 2010, and Aug. 26, 2011.

The pilot started his basic indoctrination training with Air Methods on Sept. 13, 2010. After receiving 4.2 hr. of flight training, on Oct. 6, 2010, he satisfactorily completed an initial flight evaluation. The check included power failures, autorotations to a power recovery (but without a reduction in power) and hovering autorotations (oral only).

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