A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board indicates weather was a factor in the March 12 crash of an EagleMed helicopter in Oklahoma that killed the pilot.
The report said the helicopter crashed after striking trees.
The Eurocopter AS350 B2 owned and operated by Wichita-based EagleMed departed from the helipad at St. Francis Hospital in Tulsa and was bound for McAlester Regional Airport in McAlester, the report said. On board were pilot Matt Mathews and two crew members: nurse Kim Ramsey and paramedic Ryan Setzkorn.
The helicopter and crew were returning to McAlester after transporting a patient to St. Francis. Mathews had filed a visual flight plan for the mission, the report said, but told the crew during the flight to Tulsa that he noticed the clouds above their cruise altitude were lower than he expected.
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During the return flight to McAlester at a cruise altitude of about 1,500 feet, the helicopter twice encountered heavy cloud cover, the report said.
“After a short discussion the pilot then stated he was going to divert, and he began a left turn to return to Tulsa,” the report said. “Soon after beginning the left turn the helicopter impacted trees and terrain at a surface elevation of about 850 feet.”
The crash occurred at 11:15 p.m. near Eufaula, which is about 120 miles east of Oklahoma City.
An automated weather report from a weather station at Okmulgee Regional Airport – 20 miles north-northwest of the crash site – showed broken clouds at 2,400 feet above ground level and a broken cloud base at 3,000 feet above ground level at the time of the crash, the report said. A different weather report said at 10:55 p.m. the lowest cloud layer in the area was scattered at 1,100 feet above ground level, the NTSB report said.
A report from a weather station at McAlester Regional Airport showed the lowest cloud bases were between 900 and 2,100 feet above ground level starting at 9:53 p.m. and through the time of the crash, the NTSB report said.
Following the crash, the report said Ramsey and Setzkorn, who were seriously injured, extracted themselves from the wreckage and made a cellphone call to report the accident and their position.
“Emergency responders hiked in the dark night conditions through the remote rugged terrain and arrived several hours later,” the report said.
John Eakin, owner of Texas-based Air Data Research, said that if it was a situation where the cloud base was lowering, the pilot likely had encountered those conditions before and had successfully navigated through them.
“I can’t criticize the pilot,” Eakin said, adding that as a commercially licensed pilot he’s been in similar situations. Eakin’s company analyzes aircraft safety and crash information.
Plus, pilots in air ambulance operations operate in a different mindset from other pilots. “In the air ambulance business, they pride themselves on getting to their destination,” Eakin said. “There’s always that unspoken urgency to their missions.”
It could be a year before the NTSB issues its final report on the accident, which will include a cause or probable cause of the accident.
The March crash was the fourth fatal crash of an EagleMed helicopter in Oklahoma in the past five years.