Thursday, January 22, 2009

Air Angels crash: A scream, then no sound at all

A straight-on path, flown at a consistent altitude on a clear night, ended with a scream from the cockpit, according to a federal report released Jan. 15 on the fatal October Air Angels crash in Aurora.

Citing radar information and radio exchanges with the tower at DuPage Airport, the National Transportation Safety Board report explains the Bell 222 medical helicopter -- carrying a 14-month-old Leland girl and three crew members -- was on a direct line between Valley West Community Hospital in Sandwich and Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

A few seconds after 11:55 p.m. on Oct. 15, pilot Del Waugh radioed the tower to give an update on location and altitude.

"Ah, sir, we are just over Aurora en route to Children's hospital, ah downtown Chicago, at about 1,400 feet (sea level)," Waugh told the controller, according to the report.

The final radio contact came 178 seconds later when "an unidentified transmission similar to "ahhhhhhhh" was heard on the frequency.' There were no further contacts with the aircraft," the report states, noting the last radar return coincided with the location of a radio tower along Eola Road on Aurora's far East Side.

At that point, investigators have determined, the chopper's rotor struck the radio tower owned by WBIG-AM. The rotor separated, dropping onto Eola Road's east side curb. About 450 feet away, the rest of the helicopter slammed into a grassy field and burst into flames.

Waugh, crew members William Mann and Ron Battiato died in the crash, as did Kirstin Blockinger, the infant who was being flown to the Chicago hospital after suffering frequent seizures.

The girl's parents have sued Air Angels, its parent company Reach Medical Holdings and Waugh's estate in a lawsuit their attorneys hope will force federal agencies to more fiercely oversee and regulate medical helicopter companies.

The NTSB has hearings scheduled in Washington, D.C., next month to address the growing number of fatal medical evacuation crashes. Problems within the industry prompted the Federal Aviation Administration in 2006 to issue several safety recommendations for air ambulance operations.

"The NTSB report released today is a preliminary report that outlines the circumstances as they are known at this time. We are reviewing the report and are awaiting the final report from the NTSB," Air Angels CEO Jim Adams said in a statement.

The Blockingers' attorneys could not be reached for comment.

The NTSB previously ruled out mechanical problems and the tower's lights as possible factors in the crash. Thursday's report is the first to delve into the flight itself or the man at the controls.

Waugh was starting his second week of night shifts and hadn't flown in two days when Air Angels accepted the transport of Kirstin Blockinger from Valley West in Sandwich.

The chopper arrived at Valley West at 11:11 p.m. Some 27 minutes later, Waugh made a "following call" to Air Angels dispatch as part of company protocol before take-off. That call included details of the flight path and estimated flight time, the report explains.

Radar returns show the helicopter flew in a straight line along its expected path, with altitudes ranging from 1,300 to 1,400 feet above sea level, or roughly 585 to 685 feet above the ground. Such flights, the report states, are conducted at between 1,500 to 1,700 feet above sea level at night.

The radio tower behind WBIG's studio -- located northwest of Liberty Street and Eola Road next to an apartment complex -- stood at 734 feet tall.

Investigators say the rotor struck the tower about 50 feet below its highest point, but have yet to offer a theory for why Waugh was flying at such a level. The helicopter did not have a terrain-awareness system and Waugh was not using a night-vision imaging system during the flight, the 11-page report explains.

Waugh died of several traumatic injuries to his head and body. Toxicology results turned up negative for all substances tested.

The report describes Waugh's flying style as "conscientious" and "meticulous." He had logged almost 283 hours in the Bell 222 over two years with Air Angels. His only medical note was a requirement to wear corrective lenses.

A September review by an Air Angels official showed Waugh followed company procedure for medical flights and observed Waugh did use the autopilot function during "en route phase."

"According to other employees at Air Angels, the pilot appeared well-rested and his demeanor seemed normal when he reported for his shift on the accident date," the report says.

Because Waugh lived in Carmel, Ind., he slept in the bunk room at the Air Angels facility in Bolingbrook during his duty weeks.