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HEMS Safety Scores Big

Posted 6 years 221 days ago ago by Randy Mains

August 14, 2014, will be remembered as a red-letter day in the annals of HEMS safety. That’s the day Air Evac Lifeteam announced it is going to equip their fleet of more than 130 aircraft with Cobham HeliSAS (Helicopter Stability Augmentation System)/Autopilot and Garmin 500H glass cockpits using synthetic vision technology. When I heard the news, I literally leapt from my chair, did a fist pump and yelled, “YES!”

The importance of this news cannot be overstated. The upgraded systems they plan to install will prove most valuable in inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions, documented over the years by the FAA and NTSB as one of the main reasons that HEMS helicopters crash.

Genesys Aerosystems (formerly Cobham) is a provider of integrated avionics systems for military and civil customers. Their HeliSAS and autopilot technology offers added safety within the financial reach of many of the HEMS operators.


This news is significant to me personally, because for decades I have witnessed the same HEMS crash occurring repeatedly: CFIT and IIMC, loss of spatial orientation, loss of control. I personally learned about the value of having an autopilot back in 1982 when I flew the Bell 222 single-pilot IFR in San Diego from UCSD Medical Center.  Since then I have flown aircraft with an autopilot in every job I’ve had. In my mind, having an autopilot in every HEMS aircraft to aid a pilot in the event of an IIMC encounter or to unload him during an emergency has always been a no-brainer.  

I’ve been writing books and articles and giving keynote speeches in America, Canada, Europe and Australia, highlighting the problem and offering a solution. Now, finally, someone has taken that solution seriously and is running with it.  It’s my hope that one day every HEMS aircraft will be similarly fitted.  

Air Evac Lifeteam officials say the company will upgrade their entire fleet of Bell 206 LongRangers and Bell 407 helicopters over the next three years. Seth Myers, president of Air Evac Lifeteam said, “This is the next step in Air Evac's commitment to safety."

I applaud them for it.

In the May 2014 issue of Rotorcraft Pro I wrote an article entitled, “The FAA’s Missed Opportunity.” I chastised the FAA for not mandating an autopilot be fitted in every HEMS aircraft after they, themselves, documented that half the HEMS crashes could have been prevented had an autopilot been installed if a second pilot wasn’t available. Here’s what I said in that article:

“I predict that the new rules (released by the FAA February 20, 2014) aimed at our air ambulance industry will not significantly reduce the accident rate. Unless the operators take it upon themselves to install autopilots in every HEMS aircraft before being forced to do so by the FAA, a day will eventually come when a rule will be mandated that all HEMS helicopters must be fitted with an autopilot if not operated using two pilots. Doing it now will save lives.”

Air Evac Lifeteam must have had similar thoughts.

This increased level of commitment to safety by a HEMS operator is a long time coming. In 2000, The U.S. Joint Helicopter Safety Analysis Team, in their report listed under “Emergency Medical Services – Prioritized Safety Recommendations” wrote:

“Encourage the use of new technology that would assist in raising pilots’ and crews’ situational awareness, e.g., night vision goggles (NVGs), synthetic vision systems (SVSs), terrain / proximity awareness, weather in the cockpit, GPS moving map displays.”

Albert Einstein once said, “Those who have the privilege to know, have the duty to act.” For 32 years I’ve had the privilege to know and have been actively speaking out on the subject since August 31, 2010, the date when I became an activist for change in our HEMS industry. On that date I learned of yet another HEMS crash, this one in Arkansas killing three, which turned out to be another IIMC accident. The moment I heard about that crash, something ‘snapped’ inside causing me to vow to return to America to share the knowledge I’d gained while flying SPIFR in San Diego, plus what I’d learned in the 30 years flying abroad utilizing two pilots with full autopilot. 

If you read through the NTSB accident reports dating back to the 1970s, the majority of HEMS accidents have been due to a single pilot losing spatial orientation, losing control, and crashing. Knowing the value of flying an aircraft equipped with an autopilot if a second pilot isn’t available, I felt I had the answer to put a stop to the majority of the HEMS crashes. The addition of synthetic vision technology is a huge bonus that should keep the pilot from losing spatial orientation because he can ‘see’ what the terrain looks like even if he’s in the clouds.

In instrument training we used to joke, “One peek outside is worth a thousand cross checks.” That one peek would cause you to instantly regain situational awareness and spatial orientation. Having synthetic vision technology will be the next best thing to flying in visual meteorological conditions.

A friend recently told me he’d been flying with a student in a Robinson 44 with a Garmin 500H installed. He said his student was an average student who had never flown on instruments. He put the student under the hood with only the synthetic vision display in front of him, gave him a few instructions, and the student flew a perfect instrument approach.

We all know technology is not a silver bullet. Airliners crammed with the latest technology still crash due to human error. That is where regular crew resource management training comes in to play. CRM makes team members aware of how we human beings make mistakes and how to avoid making them.

I firmly believe that, if properly trained, having an autopilot coupled with synthetic vision technology will have a significant impact on reducing an unacceptable HEMS accident rate. What needs to happen now is for all HEMS operators to follow Air Evac Lifeteam’s laudable example.


About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM instructor for Oregon Areo.

He may be contacted at [email protected]