NTSB Investigating EMS Helicopter Crash in Illinois



An emergency medical service helicopter clipped a guy wire, causing the blades to break off and crash Wednesday night in Aurora, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. The crash killed two crew members, a nurse, and a one-year-old patient. Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating.

This is just the latest in a string of EMS helicopter crashes that has the NTSB concerned. NTSB Vice Chairman Robert Sumwalt, speaking three days after a Maryland State Police chopper crashed carrying victims from an automobile accident, said, “We have had too many [EMS accidents]. We need to do something about it. We need to do something about it right now.” So far, there have been nine fatal medical helicopter accidents this year.

The NTSB has raised concerns about EMS helicopters in the past. Since 2006, over 50 people have been killed in these types of accidents, and nearly 50 percent of these accidents happen at night. Many of the accidents have been blamed on poor weather conditions, such as fog. (The most recent accident in Aurora happened in clear weather.) The NTSB released a report in 2006 that identified four safety issues they were concerned about:


  • Less stringent requirements for EMS operations conducted without patients on board.

  • A lack of aviation flight-risk evaluation programs for EMS operations.

  • A lack of consistent, comprehensive flight-dispatch procedures for EMS operations.

  • No requirements to use technologies such as terrain awareness and warning systems to enhance EMS flight safety.


However, the NTSB can only make recommendations to the FAA on ways to lower the number of accidents. While the FAA agrees with many of the NTSB recommendations, critics charge that the FAA has not turned these recommendations into mandatory regulations. For example, one technology veteran EMS pilots would like to see on all helicopters is night-vision goggles. The NTSB has recommended this as well, and a survey released last May by the National EMS Pilots Association said that over 80 percent of pilots prefer to use night-vision equipment.

The company making night vision equipment, ITT Technologies, has been operating on a 24/7 schedule, but night-vision goggles for civilian or emergency medical service and law enforcement use are on a six to eight month wait-list. Most of these night-vision goggles are going to the military due to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Only a third of the 800 EMS helicopters in the U.S. are equipped with night-vision goggles.