Fuel exhaustion may have possibly led to the catastrophic crash of a medical helicopter that occurred in Clay County, Missouri on Friday. A pilot, two medical crew members, and a patient tragically lost their lives when the helicopter descended in a remote area outside Mosby — just one mile short of its refueling stop.
The low fuel hypothesis is merely one possible factor being looked into by federal transportation officials. NTSB investigators and FAA officials may need up to a year to determine the official cause of the accident.
The helicopter, a Eurocopter AS-350 owned by Air Methods and flown by its subsidiary, LifeNet, had departed from St. Joseph, picked up a patient in Bethany, and was headed for a hospital in the northern suburbs of Kansas City. The patient, 58, was to be transferred by air from Harrison County Community Hospital in Bethany to Liberty Hospital.
The pilot recognized the need to refuel the aircraft, and planned to do so at the Midwest National Airport in Mosby, MO before continuing to Liberty Hospital. For reasons unknown, just one mile from the airport, the aircraft suddenly descended into an open field of grass south of MO-92.
Details of what may have caused the accident remain sketchy at this point; a spokesman for the NTSB stated that there were no witnesses to the accident, nor was there a distress call from the helicopter. At this time, according to the NTSB, there is no known communication that took place between the air ambulance and air traffic controllers around the time of the accident.
A report from FOX 4 News in Kansas City says that contact between the aircraft and the communication center was lost at 6:41 PM. When contact was lost, the communications center notified Midwest National Airport, who were unable to confirm that the aircraft had landed. Local police were dispatched to the coordinates of the last ping that was received from the aircraft, and soon discovered the wreckage.
According to the corporate vice president Air Methods, refueling with a patient on-board is not a common occurrence. “We try to do flights in such a way that we don’t have to add fuel while the patient is on board,” he said.
As always, federal investigators have been combing through the wreckage looking for clues. A spokesperson for the Federal Aviation Administration has stated that it is too early in the investigation to determine whether lack of fuel was indeed a factor in the accident, citing that it is not known how much fuel the helicopter had remaining before it went down.
HEMS (helicopter EMS) crashes nationwide are at an “unacceptable” level, in the wording of the NTSB. In May, a presentation from the NTSB concluded that EMS helicopter crews, on average, have the highest-risk occupation in the country — higher than workers in the fishing, steel, coal-mining, and logging industries. The full NTSB presentation can be viewed here: ntsb.gov/doclib/speeches/sumwalt/sumwalt_050411.pdf
A preliminary report on the Mosby, MO crash could potentially be released in roughly a week’s time, but would not include what caused the accident. That decision could take investigators up to twelve months.
On Saturday, Air Methods released the names of the crew members who perished in the accident, identifying them as Randy Bever, a flight nurse, Chris Frakes, a flight paramedic, and James Freudenbert, a pilot.
The staff at Air Ambulance Weekly wish to send our hearts, prayers, and deepest condolences to the families and colleagues of the patient, pilot, and crew members who lost their lives in this tragic accident.