Bell 206B Crash Near Green Cove Springs, Florida
Early on the morning of December 26, 2011, a Bell 206B, N5016M, operated by SK Logistics, d.b.a. SK Jets, crashed near Green Cove Springs, Florida. The pilot and 2 passengers, including Mayo Clinic cardiac surgeon Dr. Luis Bonilla and medical technician David Hines were killed. The on-demand air taxi flight took off from Mayo Clinic Heliport in Jacksonville, Florida and was headed to a heliport in Gainesville, Florida. The helicopter was registered to Abraham Holdings LLC. On-demand taxi flights are governed by part 135 of the federal aviation regulations, which has stricter requirements and greater regulatory oversight than general aviation flights.
According to various sources, representatives from the Mayo Clinic Hospital contracted the flight to carry Dr. Bonilla and Mr. Hines to Shands Hospital in Gainesville, Florida, to procure an organ for transplantation. When the flight did not arrive at Shands Hospital, it was reported overdue by a Mayo Clinic Hospital representative, which activated local search and rescue operations.
According to preliminary radar and communication data from the FAA, the helicopter departed the Mayo Clinic flying a track slightly south and east of a direct course to Shands Hospital. During the flight, the helicopter’s altitude varied between 200 and 700 feet mean sea level.
The helicopter crashed into a field of trees. According to a local news source, the helicopter crashed in overcast and misty conditions. If the weather is the cause, as it appears to be, this is yet another unfortunate and senseless tragedy that should have been avoided. The accident again underscores the need for pilots to know their own limitations before departing on a mission — even an important life-saving mission where there is great pressure to go. Procedures need to be implemented to make certain that supervisors consider the adverse mission factors and evaluate the go or no-go decision under the circumstances. Pilots also need to be constantly reminded, through training and pre-flight briefing procedures, that when adverse weather is encountered, especially in a helicopter, turning around or simply setting the aircraft down is the safest course of action.
The firm has had significant experience in investigating and litigating claims arising out of EMS helicopter and fixed-wing flight accidents. Just last year the firm successfully resolved claims arising from the crash of a Cessna Citation in Lake Michigan. Like this terrible accident, that flight was transporting a medical team including two brave cardiac surgeons, (whose families Kreindler later represented), on a survival flight mission to harvest lungs for a patient at the University of Michigan Hospital.
The primary cause of that “Survival Flight” crash was piloting errors by the flight crew. In addition to reconstructing the accident flight and dissecting the pilot actions in the cockpit, our investigation scrutinized the training and hiring practices of the operator and found them to be wanting. As a result of the investigation, several important safety recommendations have been proposed to the FAA, which will hopefully prevent accidents of this kind in the future for all charter and EMS operators.
While we never like to jump to conclusions, the preliminary evidence in this case certainly suggests that the pilot may have been pushing too hard to accomplish the mission. This raises an issue we have encountered before in EMS flight accidents — flight crews who will sacrifice safety and overlook normal procedures in order to accomplish the mission. As an Army helicopter pilot who has performed medical evacuation (Medevac) missions in the Washington D.C. area, I can identify with this innate sense of urgency to save a life. I vividly recall several missions where the weather was poor, and “normally ” we would have stayed on the ground, but the critical nature of “medevac” compelled us to launch. For these reasons, it is critical for EMS operators to supervise and train their flight crews to stick to established procedures and take no added safety risks just because it is an important life-saving mission. For those operators who do not heed this call, the result will be more lives lost.
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