On August 26, 2011, about 1841 central daylight time, a Eurocopter AS350 B2 helicopter, N352LN, crashed following a loss of engine power as a result of fuel exhaustion near the Midwest National Air Center (GPH), Mosby, Missouri. The pilot, flight nurse, flight paramedic, and patient were killed, and the helicopter was substantially damaged by impact forces. The emergency medical services (EMS) helicopter was registered to Key Equipment Finance, Inc., and operated by Air Methods Corporation, doing business as LifeNet in the Heartland, as a 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 135 medical flight. Day visual meteorological conditions prevailed at the time of the accident, and a company visual flight rules flight plan was filed. The helicopter was not equipped, and was not required to be equipped, with any onboard recording devices. The flight originated from Harrison County Community Hospital, Bethany, Missouri, about 1811 and was en route to GPH to refuel. After refueling, the pilot planned to proceed to Liberty Hospital, Liberty, Missouri, which was located about 7 nautical miles (nm) from GPH.
The helicopter impacted the ground in about a 40° nose-down attitude at a high rate of descent with a low rotor rpm. Wreckage examination determined that the engine lost power due to fuel exhaustion and that the fuel system was operating properly. The investigation revealed that the pilot did not comply with several company standard operating procedures that, if followed, would have led him to detect the helicopter’s low fuel state before beginning the first leg of the mission (from the helicopter’s base in St. Joseph, Missouri, to Harrison County Community Hospital). After reaching the hospital, the pilot reported to the company’s EMS communication center that he did not have enough fuel to fly to Liberty Hospital and requested help locating a nearby fuel option. During their conversation, the pilot did not report and the communication specialist did not ask how much fuel was on board the helicopter, and neither of them considered canceling the mission and having fuel brought to the helicopter. After determining that GPH was the only airport with Jet-A fuel along the route of flight to Liberty Hospital, the pilot decided to proceed to GPH, although the estimated flight time to GPH was only 2 minutes shorter than that to Liberty Hospital. The engine lost power about 1 nm short of the airport, and the pilot did not make the flight control inputs necessary to enter an autorotation, which resulted in a rapid decay in rotor rpm.
The probable causes of this accident were the pilot’s failure to confirm that the helicopter had adequate fuel on board to complete the mission before making the first departure, his improper decision to continue the mission and make a second departure after he became aware of a critically low fuel level, and his failure to successfully enter an autorotation when the engine lost power due to fuel exhaustion. Contributing to the accident were (1) the pilot’s distracted attention due to personal texting during safety-critical ground and flight operations, (2) his degraded performance due to fatigue, (3) the operator’s lack of a policy requiring that an operational control center specialist be notified of abnormal fuel situations, and (4) the lack of practice representative of an actual engine failure at cruise airspeed in the pilot’s autorotation training in the accident make and model helicopter.
We made recommendatins to the Federal Aviation Administration and to Air Methods Corporation.