The National Transportation Safety Board has determined pilot error was the cause of a Haynes Life Flight helicopter crash that occurred in 2016 which claimed the life of a Eufaula man, Chad Hammond, and three others that were aboard the helicopter. Others on board the helicopter, known as Life Flight 2, were flight medic Jason Snipes, 34; flight nurse Stacey Cernadas, 38; and patient Zack Strickland.
The helicopter air ambulance crashed on March 26, 2016 around midnight after being dispatched to the site of a one car accident. The helicopter was reported missing after 12:18 a.m. on Saturday, after contact was lost.
According to a report put out by the NTSB, the initial call requesting the helicopter came at 11:20 p.m. on March 25; the helicopter sat down in a field adjacent to the accident site at 11:53 p.m. The pilot, Hammond, remained in the helicopter with the engine running while the flight nurse and paramedic exited the helicopter and entered the Enterprise Rescue Squad ambulance to help prepare the patient for transport. Witness statements, video and photographs indicated that reduced visibility in fog and mist as well as very-light-to-light precipitation existed at the (car crash) site, and the nearest weather station, four miles away, was reporting a 300-ft ceiling and 3-miles visibility. Radar data indicated that, after takeoff, the helicopter entered a left turn and climbed to 1,000 feet above mean sea level. The rate of turn then began to increase, and, after reaching a peak altitude of 1,100 feet, the helicopter began a rapid descent that continued to ground impact. According to radar data, the flight lasted about one minute.
The wreckage was found four hours later the same day in Goodman, Alabama about a half-mile from the scene of the car accident in a heavily wooded and marshy area. Examination of the accident site and wreckage revealed the helicopter struck trees and terrain and was highly fragmented. The NTSB report says the wreckage did not reveal evidence of any pre-impact malfunctions or failures that would have precluded normal operation of a helicopter.
The NTSB released its probable cause report on May 24 stating: “The pilot’s decision to perform ‘visual flight rules’ (VFR) flight into night ‘instrument meteorological conditions’(IMC), which resulted in loss of control due to spatial disorientation. Contributing to the accident was the pilot’s self-induced pressure to complete the mission despite the weather conditions and the operator’s inadequate oversight of the flight by its operational control center.”
In another part of the report it was stated, to accomplish operational control of its flights, the operator used an operational control center (OCC) that was staffed 24 hours a day by operational control coordinators. The report states, “The (weather query software) only recognized the (car crash) site as being near the helicopter’s base, which was reporting visual meteorological conditions, and did not show the IMC being reported at weather stations closer to the (car crash) site.” This was due to coordinates for the site being input in the wrong format, although coordinates were correct. Therefore, information given to the pilot did not include the correct weather information from the car crash site to the hospital location according to the report. According to the report, the pilot had the final authority to decide if the flight could be completed safely.
The NTSB Analysis continued, “Given the IMC weather conditions being reported, which were below the required VFR weather conditions minimums for the flight, the OCC coordinators should have provided the pilot with additional weather information after they correctly input the coordinates of the (car crash) site into the OCC Helper software; however, the did not do so…
“However, text messages between the pilot and a friend and between the flight nurse on the accident flight and the same friend indicated that the pilot was aware of the possibility of encountering IMC before he departed the base for the (car crash) site. Further, after landing at the (car crash), the pilot would have been aware that the weather conditions at the site were below the company’s VFR weather minimums.”
The NTSB analysis ends, saying, “Given the weather conditions at the (car crash) site, the pilot should have canceled the flight or, at a minimum contacted the OCC to obtain updated weather information and guidance. However, the pilot’s fixation on completing the mission probably motivated him to depart on the accident flight in IMC, even though significantly less risky alternatives existed, such as canceling the flight and transporting the patient by ground ambulance.”