HEMS Operator Drops Pretense That It's All About Speed

The air ambulance industry has a poor safety record.  Most of the industry crashes involve EMS helicopters rather than airplanes.  The EMS helicopter fatal accident rate is 6000 times that of commercial airliners.  As it turns out, flying an EMS helicopter is one of the most dangerous jobs inSkyHealth America.

The industry tries to justify the poor safety record by pointing to the “need for speed.”  While acknowledging that the risk of a crash is many times greater for a patient traveling in an EMS helicopter than a ground ambulance, the industry argues that the additional risk is justified because the patient riding in a helicopter usually gets to the hospital sooner.  

That argument has always been questionable. Now, however, it seems that at least one operator is dropping the pretense altogether.  According to SkyHealth, a brand new contractor providing helicopter services to Yale-New Haven hospital patients, it’s really not about speed at all.  It’s really about the equipment on board the helicopter.

When you’re talking about using the helicopter for critical-care patients, people think it’s all about speed. . .  But it’s not about getting to the hospital faster.  It’s really about being able to provide care during transport from one hospital to another.”

The new operator reports that it is flying patients every other day.  But it's not rushing trauma victims from accidents sites to emergency rooms as you might expect.  Instead, it is moving stable patients from one hospital to another.

With the copter, ‘you don’t have out of hospital time because the crew in the hospital can do the same things as the [ICU]. . .It’s a higher level of care than our ground transport.

Wouldn’t it be safer for these patients and cheaper to simply upgrade the care available in a ground ambulance? 

Aviation Lawyer Terry O'Reilly Files Bankruptcy

His website tells of an illustrious legal career spanning decades.  Pictured next to an antique race car, Terry O’Reilly boasts that he is “one of the most distinguished and successful trial lawyers” in the entire United States. O'Reilly lists many awards he claims to have received and explains that “I have the largest number of seven and eight figure verdicts in Northern California.”  He speaks of one aviation case he settled for more than $160 million.  Scattered through the website are other photos showing him surrounded by the trappings of his success.

A prospective client couldn't help but be impressed.  Terry O'Reilly's Bentley

But it now looks as though O'Reilly's show is mostly smoke and mirrors.  Yesterday the Boalt Law School graduate filed personal bankruptcy, with unpaid debts approaching $10 million. 

O’Reilly brings with him into bankruptcy the O’Reilly Law firm itself.  O'Reilly is legally permitted to continue practicing law even though he is bankrupt.  But all that is left of his firm is a small desk in a San Mateo, California office building.  The office is staffed by a disbarred lawyer, Pamela Stevens.  Stevens, according to State bar records, bilked her injured clients out of millions of dollars of settlement money and is considered a danger to the public.  Not someone who an accident victim would want working on his or her case.  

Certain types of attorneys can serve clients perfectly well even if they are themselves insolvent.  But plaintiffs lawyers working on contingency need to finance their clients' cases.  They must advance on their clients' behalf hundreds of thousand of dollars for experts and court costs.  With no money, it’s unclear how O’Reilly will be able to adequately represent the clients he seeks to attract.  

How was O'Reilly able to appear to be so successful for so long? Last week a California court of appeal ruled that over the years O’Reilly was able to buy flashy stuff by improperly siphoning money from his previous law firm.  As a result, he ended up driving that law firm, O'Reilly & Collins, into bankruptcy in 2012:

O’Reilly, “in a concerted effort to wring from the firm every last dollar . . wrote firm checks to others to: build and furnish for him and his wife a luxury ranch in Idaho; buy expensive vintage cars here and abroad in furtherance of his racing hobby; buy fine wine, entertainment systems, and clothes;  pay taxes and insurance on his home in San Francisco; fly around on private jets, take ski vacations and travel to rugby matches; pay for vacations and shopping sprees for his current spouse; and fund his personal trust and retirement accounts. . . “

In short, O’Reilly was buying things with other people’s money.  And he apparently had no way of paying those people back.  Yesterday, it all caught up with him.  

Having worked with O'Reilly years ago, it's sad to see.

Eddie Andreini Accident: Air Force Documents Reveal Travis Officials Confused by Air Force Regulations

Airport fire trucks must get to a burning plane within three minutes if they are going to save any lives. That's the maximum response time allowed by the National Fire Protection Association, the organization that sets the standard for airport firefighters, including those working at U.S. Air Force bases. 

The survivable atmosphere inside an aircraft fuselage involved in an exterior fuel fire is limited to approximately 3 minutes if the integrity of the airframe is maintained during impact. This time could be substantially reduced if the fuselage is fractured. . . rapid fire control is critical. . .

Aircraft flown in air shows are usually smaller and less fire resistant than transport category aircraft.  At air shows fire trucks need to get to crash sites even quicker – within 60 seconds or less.

The key to getting fire trucks to a crash quickly is to station the trucks near to where an accident is most likely to occur.  Normally, that might be the end of the active runway.  But most air show crashes occur at “show center” rather than the end of the runway.  As one Travis Air Force witness put it, show center is where ‘the majority of dangerous events focus.”  At air shows, that's where fire trucks should be waiting.

Eddie's Accident

On May 4, Eddie Andreini was flying a routine at the Travis Air Force Base open house.  He was attempting a stunt known as an inverted ribbon cut.  Something went wrong.  Eddie's Stearman slid upside down along the runway, coming to a stop at smack dab show center. Eddie was uninjured but was trapped inside.  A fire started almost immediately.  Air Force personnel say that they saw Eddie struggling to get out as he waited for the fire trucks to save him.  One minute passed, then two, then three.  But the crash trucks didn't come.  When they finally did, it was too late. 

What happened?

The Air Force refused to explain why it took so long for its fire trucks to reach Eddie.  So we sued it under the Freedom of Information Act.  We now have internal Air Force documents showing that the brass didn’t understand the Air Force’s own regulations.  They mistakenly believed regulations prohibited them from stationing fire trucks near show center.  So instead, the Air Force positioned the fire trucks more than a mile and a half away. 

The Travis speed limit for fire trucks is 45 mph.  So it took the first fire truck (a “Rapid Intervention Vehicle”) more than four minutes to get to Eddie.  Had the Air Force positioned even one truck at show center--as it was supposed to--firemen would have gotten to Eddie within a minute and Eddie would have been saved.   

Regulations can be confusing. Was the Air Force’s mistake understandable?  Not really. The manual that Travis show organizers had in hand--and agreed to follow--makes clear that fire trucks belong at show center.  According to that manual, the personnel who were permitted in the “aerobatic box” (the area in which performers fly) included “demonstration teams and fire/rescue.” (Page 28.) The manual goes on to direct that fire trucks should be located “with immediate access to the show line” (page 34) – not a mile and a half away. 

To the extent the Air Force brass was confused, the FAA cleared things up for them when, a week before the air show, it told Travis that crash trucks did indeed belong “in the box” near show center.   

Our team, specifically the air ops staff, was led to believe that we could not put an emergency vehicle (or anything else) inside the Show Box at Show Center, because it was sterile and protected.  We learned that this was not correct about a week before the show after [name redacted] discussed it with [name redacted] of the FAA.  We learned that we could place airshow official vehicles or people in the aerobatic box."

Travis had time

The Air Force's own documents prove that Travis officials had a week before the show was to begin to correct their mistake and arrange for the trucks to be stationed at show center. But the Travis officials had already decided that the fire trucks were going to be positioned where they couldn't be of any use to a performer.  Having made a plan, they weren't going to change, even if it put lives at risk unnecessarily.

"I'll say it again, I need the trucks on the runway!  I need the trucks on the runway now!"

The Travis Command Post recording is difficult to listen to. After hearing it, it's hard to believe that Travis still tells the public that its fire department responded to the crash in an "exemplary" fashion.

(Notes:  At 2:14, one of Eddie’s crew tried to fight fire with a hand-held extinguisher.  The extinguisher was too small and was expended in seconds.  By that time, the Rapid Intervention Vehicle had not yet even left its station.  The Air Force documents do not explain why it took so long for the truck to roll.  It finally arrives on scene after the 4 minute mark.  The time stamps were placed on the photos by Air Force.)

GAMA Responds to USA Today Claims re Post-Crash Fires

USA Today ran Thomas Frank's story on the unnecessary risks posed by post-crash aircraft fires.  According to Frank's article, small aircraft fires have killed at least 600 people since 1993, burning them alive or suffocating them after otherwise survivable accidents.  Hundreds more have survived post crash fires but have been horribly burned.

I’ve written many times over the years that no one should be burned in an otherwise survivable aviation accident.  The technology to prevent post crash fires has been around since the war in Vietnam.

The FAA has not required manufacturers to install such technology because it would be too costly – between $556 and $5,710 per aircraft.  That doesn’t sound like much, but according to the FAA, it doesn’t pencil out when compared to the dollar value of the lives that would be saved.  But the USA Today article points out that, in running the calculations, the FAA undervalued human life.  For example, while the EPA used a value of $3.3 million per life when it justified regulation to protect the ozone, the FAA used a lower value -- just $1 million per life -- when it ran the numbers on post-crash fires.  No wonder the costs didn’t pencil.

Of course, just because the FAA doesn’t require manufacturers to keep their aircraft safe from post-crash fires, it doesn’t mean that the manufacturers can’t do so on their own. 

Today the manufacturers responded to the USA Today article, suggesting that it was inaccurate and one-sided.

GAMA’s Greg Bowles talked for more than three hours with Mr. Frank [the article’s author] about general aviation safety to include preventing post-crash fires through improved crashworthiness and manufacturers’ efforts to mitigate the effects of accidents for Mr. Frank’s previous series, “Unfit for Flight.” Unfortunately, Mr. Frank chose not to include the bulk of Mr. Bowles’ remarks that chronicled our industry’s successful efforts to continue to improve our safety record.

The GAMA response goes on to talk about all the things the manufacturers are doing to help prevent planes from crashing.  It says nothing, however, about what it is doing to ensure that when they do inevitably crash, they don’t catch fire.  

Air Force Hides the Ball on Andreini Crash Response

Hall of Fame Aerobatic pilot Eddie Andreini died during the "Thunder Over Solano" air show at Travis Air Force Base in May.  There was a mishap during his routine, and his Stearman biplane slid to a stop on the runway. Eddie wasn't hurt, but he was trapped in the plane.  He radio'd for help.

The Air Force had told the performers that its fire trucks would be positioned and ready to respond toEddie Andreini such an emergency within seconds.  But for some reason, the trucks were nowhere to be found during Eddie's routine. Instead of getting to Eddie in a minute or less, as they were supposed to, the trucks didn't get to Eddie for nearly five minutes.  By then, Eddie's plane was engulfed in flames and it was too late.  Eddie was gone.

Where were the firetrucks?  What took them so long to get to Eddie?  When the family asked the Air Force these questions, the Air Force closed ranks and went mum.  So the family exercised its rights under the Freedom of Information Act. The family formally requested the Air Force to turn over to them the documents that would show why the Air Force fire trucks didn't come to Eddie's aid as it had promised, and instead let Eddie burn to death.  

Under the law, the Air Force had 20 days to respond to the family's request. We had hoped that, out of respect for the family, it would have turned over documents right away.  But that was not to be. The family made its request to the Air Force four months ago. Yet the Air Force has yet to turn over to the family even a single piece of paper.

We've just filed suit against the Air Force for violating the Freedom of Information Act.  We want to know:  

  • Does the Air Force believe it is above the law?  
  • Does the Air Force believe that the family has no right to know why Eddie died?
  • What is the Air Force trying to hide from Eddie's family and the public about it's role in Eddie's death?  

 

Complaint - Travis AFB Re FOIA Request - FEC

NTSB Sued for Obstruction of Justice

Families of those involved in five different general aviation crashes and their lawyer are suing the NTSB, charging it with obstruction of justice.  The suit claims that the NTSB withheld from the families information concerning each of the crashes in violation of the Freedom of Information Act.

I’ve commented before about how the NTSB’s “party system” creates a conflict of interest that skews the results of its investigations in favor of the manufacturers.  But this lawsuit goes further than that.  It alleges not just a conflict of interest, but collusion between the NTSB and the manufactures:

Upon information and belief, investigators and others employed by the NTSB collude with manufacturers and, upon their departure from government, most often accept employment defending the aircraft and component manufacturers whom they are previously tasked to investigate.

As a result of that collusion, the lawsuit alleges, the NTSB withholds and even destroys evidence for the express purpose of preventing the victims and their families from finding out what really caused the crash and holding those responsible accountable.

The NTSB, through its officers, employees and/or its agents, including party participants, acted and continues to act with the intent to avoid, evade, prevent and/or obstruct the timely investigation of airplane crashes.

Does the NTSB really destroy evidence? Every aviation lawyer knows that it does exactly that, at least to some extent.  For example, an NTSB investigator may take many photos of an accident scene or wreckage.  Yet, he will make part only certain of those photographs part of the “Public Docket.”  The investigator may simply discard the rest before the NTSB releases its final report and opens the docket to public review.  The lawsuit seems to suggest that at least some investigators discard material purposely and selectively so that evidence that would incriminate the manufactures or other “party participants” never sees the light of day.

Explosive stuff.

 

Obstruction of Justice against the NTSB

Ethics Committee Goes After Monica Ribbeck Kelly for "Frivolous" MH370 Filing

The Illinois Attorney Ethics Committee has filed a complaint against Monica Ribbeck Kelly, the Chicago lawyer who started legal proceedings on behalf of a passenger's family shortly after Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 went missing.  One of the problems for Kelly is that the missing passenger's parents denied that they ever authorized Kelly to represent them.  

According to an ABC news story, the Illinois Attorney Registration and Disciplinary Committee also claimed in its complaint that Kelly has engaged in… conduct which tends to defeat the administration of justice or bring the courts or the legal profession into disrepute…”

According to the complaint, Kelly's allegations were frivolous:

[Kelly alleged] that Siregar had been a passenger on Malaysia Airlines Flight 370, that the aircraft had crashed, that Siregar had been killed. .[Kelly's] allegations… had no basis in fact and were frivolous, because [Kelly] knew at the time she filed the petition that no evidence had been discovered regarding the location or disposition of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370.”

The ethics commission also criticizes Kelly for suggesting that a mechanical malfunction had contributed to the tragedy when committee said there was “no evidence” suggesting such a malfunction.

Full story and video at ABC News.

The Risk of Automation in the General Aviation Cockpit

I just returned from the American Association for Justice's annual convention in Baltimore, where Hudson River Corridor on the way to BaltimoreI spoke on the risks automation poses to the general aviation pilot.  As luck would have it, my autopilot failed departing San Carlos, so I ended up hand flying coast-to-coast.  No "deskilling" happening here.

Automation risk has become a popular topic over the past few years, but there's relatively little research on the subject.  To prepare for the talk, I reviewed that research and summarized it below.

 

General Aviation Automation Risk

USA Today: Cover-ups Mask Roots of Small-Aircraft Crashes

A few hours ago, USA Today published a lengthy investigative report devoted to small aircraft crashes. The conclusion:  aviation manufacturers have long concealed the fact that their defectively designed products cause aircraft crashes and injures. And the investigating agencies, including the NTSB and FAA, let them get away with it.

The report covers many of the issues we’ve touched upon before on this blog, from defective carburetors, to defective pilot seats, to faulty ice-protection systems. The report also covered a subject we’ve covered on this blog extensively – post crash helicopter fires in otherwise survivable accidents:

One of the most gruesome and long-standing problems has caused scores of people to be burned alive or asphyxiated in fires that erupt after helicopter crashes. Such deaths are notorious because they can occur after minor crashes, hard landings and rollovers that themselves don't kill or even injure helicopter occupants. The impact can rupture helicopter fuel tanks, sending fuel gushing out, where it ignites into a lethal inferno.

Using autopsy reports and crash records, USA TODAY identified 79 people killed and 28 injured since 1992 by helicopter fires following low-impact crashes. In 36 non-fatal crashes, fire destroyed or substantially damaged helicopters after minor incidents such as rollovers, crash reports show.

The report didn’t mention the most recent Robinson fire that killed the R44's pilot at Birchwood Airport in Alaska just two weeks ago.

Pilot error?

I've been saying for years that many crashes that the NTSB attributes to "pilot error" simply aren't. The USA Today report backs that up.  The report discussed the fatal crash of a single engine Piper following engine failure.  The NTSB chalked up the engine failure to pilot error.  But, as it turns out, the crash was caused by a defective carburetor float. The judge handling the case noted that the carburetor manufacturer had received more than 100 warranty claims for similar problems before the crash. Yet none of that product history made it into the NSTB report.

Ruling against Lycoming  [the engine manufacturer] and Precision [the carburetor manufacturer], Philadelphia Judge Matthew Carrafiello found evidence both might be culpable. Precision received more than 100 warranty claims concerning carburetor defects, the judge said, and Lycoming continued to use the carburetors even though it "knew of ongoing problems" with the carburetors "and of numerous plane crashes resulting from such problems.

None of that information was included in the NTSB investigation, which was aided by Lycoming and Precision and blamed Andy Bryan, the pilot, for "failure to abort the takeoff" and "failure to maintain adequate airspeed during takeoff."

According to the report, many of the crashes that the NTSB concludes are due to pilot error are actually due to defectively designed aircraft.

Federal accident investigators repeatedly overlooked defects and other dangers of private aviation as they blamed individual pilots for the overwhelming number of crashes of small airplanes and helicopters . . . The failure of crash investigators to find defective parts, dangerous aircraft designs, inadequate safety features and weak government oversight helped allow hidden hazards to persist for decades, killing or injuring thousands of pilots and passengers . . .

Manufacturers mislead the FAA

Part of the problem is that the NTSB does not travel to the site of many small airplane crashes, leaving the on-scene investigation to the FAA. Unfortunately, according to a former NTSB investigator, the FAA personnel don’t have the same investigative experience as the NTSB investigators and are easily duped by the manufacturers.

Many times what happens now is that when the accident occurs, the technical rep of the (manufacturing) company will call the NTSB and say we'll be party (to the investigation), we'll go out there and let you know what we see … the only people on scene would be perhaps an FAA guy and the field rep of the manufacturer," said Douglas Herlihy, a former NTSB investigator who now reconstructs crashes, often for plaintiffs in lawsuits against manufacturers.

"If you (the NTSB) are not there, you've got the representative from the company at the scene. His job is to skew the facts, to ignore the product difficulties and to remove the question of liability," Herlihy said.

US Airways Flight 735: Airline's Obligation to Compensate Injured Passengers

US Airways Flight 735 from Philadelphia to Orlando encountered turbulence as it passed through 17,000 feet. Three passengers and two flight attendants were injured so badly that they were hospitalized when the plane returned for landing in Philadelphia.

What is the Airline's obligation to compensate the injured?  The answer varies.

Passengers who were traveling on Flight 735 as part of an international flight:

If a passenger originated outside the US, or was ticketed to continue on from Orlando to a foreign destination, the Montreal Convention applies to that particular passenger’s claim. The Montreal Convention makes the airline liable for any injuries suffered on board the aircraft due to an "accident." The definition of "accident" includes an encounter with severe turbulence. The passenger need not prove that the airline was at fault for the accident. Under the Convention, the airline is automatically liable.

As discussed here, the Convention also entitles the passengers who suffered a physical injury to be compensated for the emotional distress they suffered as well.

Passengers who were traveling domestically:

To obtain compensation for his injuries, the domestic passenger needs to prove that his injuries were due to the airline's negligence.  For example, the domestic passengers might need to prove that the flight crew could have reasonably avoided the turbulence but didn't.  That will be difficult -- apparently nothing more than light turbulence was reported in the area.

Cabin Crew:

The injured cabin crew cannot sue their employer due to workers compensation laws. They may be able to proceed against others responsible for the encounter, such as the weather reporting agency used by the airline.  In appropriate circumstances, the crew members can also sue the United States government if Air Traffic Control should have advised the flight of the upcoming turbulence.  Again, however, reports are that there is no reason to believe the turbulence could have been foreseen.