This month, the crew of a LifeMed-operated fixed-wing air ambulance transporting a patient narrowly averted a serious accident when the plane skidded off an Alaskan runway. Freezing temperatures and iced-over conditions upon the air ambulance’s descent into Ted Stevens International caused the plane to unexpectedly shift its position on the runway, or go into a “skid”.
The plane, owned by the Oregon-based air ambulance company Aero Air, is currently under lease to LifeMed Alaska. Thankfully, neither the crewmembers nor the patient experienced any injuries as a result of the incident. However, the jet, a Lear 35A, did sustain some degree of damage during the incident. The NTSB is still investigating the full extent of the damage.
The crew had just picked up a patient in Kenai and was on its way back to an Anchorage airport. As it approached the runway, The aircraft encountered “extensive icing” according to the News Tribune. The icing was apparently so extreme that the air ambulance’s anti-icing system proved to be ineffectual. Nevertheless, it was too late for the pilots to change their mind: they were committed to the approach. According to an NTSB investigator, poor visibility made it impossible for the pilots to see exactly where they were.
Despite the conditions being stacked against them, the pilots touched the Lear down on the runway. Shortly thereafter, the aircraft skidded to the right, causing one of the wings to collide with a mass of snow next to the runway and forcing the plane to pivot.
Those onboard included two pilots, two flight paramedics, a flight nurse, and the patient. All of them survived the accident with no injuries. Possibly a little shaken, but otherwise unscathed from the scare, the transported patient continued on to his intended destination at an Anchorage medical facility.
The director of flight operations for LifeMed Alaska, Tim Nixon, verified that the air medical crew behaved exactly as they were supposed to during the incident, following all procedures correctly.
The NTSB is looking into why the plane’s icing system proved so ineffective. They are also examining other facets of the incident, such as weather advisories the pilots may have received before they committed to the landing of the aircraft. An investigator told the News Tribune that it was the first time a LifeMed aircraft had slid off a runway.
Snowy and icy runways, like this one that had to be temporarily closed in London Oxford Airport, represent a hazard to all fixed-wing aircraft.
Many airports like Ted Stevens International that are located in the higher latitudes are used to the problems severely cold weather brings. These well-prepared airports are often able to clear runways in a matter of minutes, producing snow banks that line the runway (like the one the jet wing touched in this story, causing the plane to pivot). There is even a type of machine that can measure the friction on runways to make sure they are as safe as possible for incoming and outgoing planes.
Dealing with the ever-present hazard of ice is an important consideration for any air ambulance service that operates in cold weather regions (yes, even air ambulances based in more tropical regions that may fly to other countries or regions where cold weather may be experienced), let alone an Alaskan air ambulance service. We at AAW are thankful that everyone survived the skid without injuries, and congratulate the crew on the way they handled the incident according to protocol in the face of unforgiving runway conditions.