OSF Life Flight air ambulance helicopters and flight crew members throughout the state all exceed new minimum standards required for 2015 and beyond by the FAA for part 135 (privately owned) operators in the United States, according to OSF HealthCare officials. OSF’s air ambulance operations in Northern Illinois was formerly named “OSF Lifeline” but now shares the name “OSF Life Flight” with its central Illinois operations.
“Our first priority has always been the safety of our patients we are transporting, our crew members and those communities which we serve,” said Brent Grady, Executive Director of Operations of OSF Aviation, the corporation within OSF that is responsible for its medical air ambulance operations.
“We have spared no expense at OSF to uphold our safety commitments with our helicopter services,” added Grady. “Our pilot and crew training, flight preparation requirements, maintenance and on-board safety equipment requirements and more have always been way above what the FAA requires. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the industry as a whole. I feel that the rigid standards that we hold ourselves to at OSF have been the biggest factor for our impeccable safety record. That and prayer, lots of prayer, for safe flights for all involved,” he added.
Two years ago, OSF Aviation purchased four new American Eurocopter EC 145 medical helicopters, equipped with the latest in safety and flight control equipment, to replace its aging existing fleet, long before the older helicopters’ useful life was up. “With flight and passenger safety issues, you have to stay well ahead of industry minimum requirements and plan ahead to replace equipment before issues arise. That type of planning and diligence gives your flight operations the best chance to succeed,” said Grady.
Medical helicopter operations are among the most dangerous occupations in the world. With the rise in medical transport helicopter accidents in the past decade, the FAA released new minimum safety and training requirements for operators throughout the nation in February, 2014. Under the new rules, all Part 135 helicopter operators are required to:
- Equip their helicopters with radio altimeters.
- Have occupants wear life preservers and equip helicopters with a 406 MHz Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) when a helicopter is operated beyond power-off glide distance from the shore.
- Use higher weather minimums when identifying an alternate airport in a flight plan.
- Require that pilots are tested to handle flat-light, whiteout, and brownout conditions and demonstrate competency in recovery from an inadvertent encounter with instrument meteorological conditions.
In addition, under the new rule, all air ambulance operators are required to:
- Equip with Helicopter Terrain Awareness and Warning Systems (HTAWS).
- Equip with a flight data monitoring system within four years.
- Establish operations control centers if they are certificate holders with 10 or more helicopter air ambulances.
- Institute pre-flight risk-analysis programs.
- Ensure their pilots in command hold an instrument rating.
- Ensure pilots identify and document the highest obstacle along the planned route before departure.
- Comply with Visual Flight Rules (VFR) weather minimums, Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) operations at airports/heliports without weather reporting, procedures for VFR approaches, and VFR flight planning.
- Conduct the flight using Part 135 weather requirements and flight crew time limitation and rest requirements when medical personnel are on board.
- Conduct safety briefings or training for medical personnel.
“We instituted all of these requirements, and even more rigid standards, two years ago,” said Grady. “It’s just that important to take every precaution for all involved. For example, we began using night vision goggles, when needed, two years ago. Our training regimen for pilots and crew far surpass industry requirements, even under these new rules,” he added.
A Dangerous Occupation
According to the FAA’s news release announcing the new safety rules, since August 2004, the FAA has promoted initiatives to reduce risk for helicopter air ambulance operations. While accidents did decline in the years following that effort, 2008 proved to be the deadliest year on record with five accidents that claimed 21 lives. The FAA examined helicopter air ambulance accidents from 1991 through 2010 and determined 62 accidents that claimed 125 lives could have been mitigated by today's rule. While developing the rule, the FAA considered 20 commercial helicopter accidents from 1991 through 2010 (excluding air ambulances) that resulted in 39 fatalities. From 2011 through 2013, there were seven air ambulance accidents resulting in 19 fatalities and seven commercial helicopter accidents that claimed 20 lives.
The estimated cost of the final rule in present value for the air ambulance industry is $224 million with a total benefit of $347 million over 10 years. The cost for other commercial operators is $19 million with a total benefit of $83 million over 10 years. There is no cost for any operators to use new Class G airspace weather minimums for visual flying but the benefit is $147 million over 10 years.
About OSF Medical Air Ambulance Operations
OSF Life Flight, previously serving primarily the central and southern areas of Illinois, and OSF Lifeline, which served the northern portion of the state, combined medical air ambulance operations in 2013 to take advantage of shared resources and institute one dispatch operation for the entire state. Now known solely as OSF Life Flight, it operates three permanent bases in Illinois, each equipped with full-time staff and helicopters, in Rockford, Peru and Peoria.
OSF’s air ambulance operations are the busiest in the state of Illinois, logging more than 2200 flights annually. It employs 14 pilots, seven mechanics, five communications technicians and dozens of flight nurses and additional support personnel. OSF currently operates four new American Eurocopter EC 145 helicopters, regarded as one of the top models available for air medical ambulance use. They can transport up to two patients and four crew members, including pilots, on medical missions.
OSF began the first hospital-based medical helicopter service in Illinois, in the summer of 1981. The Rockford-based operation was then known as Lifeline helicopter services. Life Flight helicopter services began in Peoria in 1984.