Saturday, January 19, 2002

Air Care pilots master delicate flights

By Tom O'Neill
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        On Thursday, it was geese. About 2,000 of them on a Clermont County high school football field.

        Today it could be fog. Or quick-shifting wind. Or power lines. Or mechanical failure.

[photo] Air Care pilot Jim Pace secures the main rotor blade of the Eurocopter BK 117 on the helipad at University Hospital Friday afternoon.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
| ZOOM |
        Medical-helicopter pilots for University Hospital-based Air Care carefully consider these dangers every time they transport a patient in urgent need of care.

        The team was shaken Friday by news of a medical-helicopter crash at a Cleveland hospital. A pilot and nurse were killed, and a medic seriously injured.

        One of Air Care's six pilots trained with the pilot who was killed in Cleveland. But even without a direct connection, medical-helicopter pilots comprise a fairly small community.

        “It hits you like a numbness,” said Air Care pilot Jim Pace, 40. “You feel for the families and friends.”

        The perils and the cargo keep Mr. Pace in hyper-vigilant mode.

        Like most medical-helicopter pilots, he got his training in the military. Danger is inherent to the work.

        The Cleveland helicopter was on its way to pick up a patient being transferred to another hospital. It had just departed the 12th-floor helipad of University Hospitals when it crashed into the parking lot and exploded.

        Killed were pilot William R. Spence, 51, and nurse Kelly Conti, 38. The only survivor, the medic, was burned on more than 25 percent of his body and is in serious condition at a Cleveland hospital.

        No one on the ground was hurt. The cause remains under investigation.

        Last year there were two medical-helicopter crashes nationwide, according to the Association of Air Medical Services. Three people were killed.

        Air Care averages nearly four runs a day, about 1,400 a year, to virtually every hospital in a 100-mile radius.

        About 30 percent of its runs are to traffic crash scenes. The rest are transfers, such as with the Cleveland tragedy. There are also refueling runs to Lunken Airport.

        Typically, urban hospitals have rooftop helipads because it's safer, but suburban hospitals such as Clermont Mercy and Jewish Kenwood have ground landing sites. In Greater Cincinnati, only Deaconess doesn't have helicopter service.

        Only about 4 percent of all medical-helicopter programs put doctors aboard flights. Air Care is one of those that does. There are about 20 doctors, 10 nurses, six pilots and three mechanics on the team.

        An Army veteran, Mr. Pace endured 55 hours of flight-time combat with the 101st Airborne Division, in an HH1 Cobra helicopter in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He has been shot at.

        But the hazard he had to avoid Thursday morning was the numerous geese blanketing the football field of Glen Este High School, where he was waiting to transport a car-crash victim to University Hospital.

        If the helicopter spooked them, the geese could have filled the sky, endangering the flight.

        “There must have been 2,000 of them,” he said with a smile.

        He didn't panic. The geese stayed put. The transport went smoothly, as have every one of the estimated 2,500 flights since May 2000.

        That was when a semi-controlled “hard-landing” on the roof of University Hospital caused a back injury to pilot John Robinson, then 52. The cause: the rooftop wind sock had become stuck, indicating far less wind than there actually was.

        The helicopter was totaled. The wind sock was fixed.

        It was the only crash in the 17-year history of Air Care at University Hospital.

        The number of medical flights has stabilized in recent years, but they are likely to rise with the budget cuts at small area hospitals, which leads to more patient transfers, said Air Care Director Dudley Smith.

        “We know we do important work,” said Mr. Pace. “But even if someone's life is at stake, we have safety considerations to think about.”

       The Associated Press contributed.

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