Helicopter air ambulances have twice the fatal accident rate compared with all other forms of aviation per 100,000 flight hours. That’s the conclusion of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University researchers Richard Simonson, a Ph.D. candidate, and faculty mentors Joseph Keebler and Alex Chaparro. The three worked to identify the specific helicopter air ambulance crash scenarios associated with an increased likelihood of fatalities. The research, published earlier this year by the Journal Aviation Medicine and Human Performance, looked at accident records over a 35-year period (1983-2018) and found that flying at night, under instrument flight rules (IFR), and post-crash fires are all associated with a higher likelihood of fatalities.
The research suggests that it may be time to reevaluate helicopter air ambulance safety, given that helicopter air ambulances flew less than 25,000 hours in 1980 and flew nearly 600,000 in 2017. “Safety issues for discussion might include the single-pilot situation, as well as how to make fuel systems more fire-resistant,” said Keebler, associate professor of human factors at Embry-Riddle (Booth 1357).
Using statistical analysis, the researchers found that a helicopter that crashes while flying at night is 3.06 times more likely to suffer a fatality, compared with helicopters flying in the daytime. Medical helicopter pilots flying under IFR are 7.54 times more likely to be involved in a fatal accident, and a post-crash fire is 18.73 times more likely to result in a fatality, compared with a crash without fire.
The study covered accidents involving 398 people, including 127 who were killed and 94 who were injured over a 35-year time period. In addition to Simonson, Keebler and Chaparro, contributors to the research included Levi Demaris, who was a master’s student in the human factors program, and Eileen Frazer who is the executive director of the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport System (CAMTS).