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Report: Medical helicopter was going fast before fatal crash

December 14, 2018
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Nurse Derek Boehm, the lone survivor of a medical helicopter crash three years ago, now works at Maricopa Medical Center Wednesday, Dec. 12, 2018, in Phoenix. The anniversary comes as a new NTSB report details the conditions of the aircraft right before the crash on the ill-fated flight. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

PHOENIX (AP) — Three years after a medical helicopter crashed and killed the pilot and a nurse outside Phoenix, a paramedic who became the lone survivor can still feel the cold and smell the fuel from that night.

“I tell people all my days are wonderful, but sometimes during a day that’s gray, I’ll have tough moments,” Boehm said. “You think of a memory or a smell or see something that triggers those emotions.”

Since the crash, Boehm has had 10 surgeries on his legs. He walks with a limp and can’t lift his left leg more than a few inches off the ground. But he has few complaints.

He says the crash that seriously injured him three years ago Saturday left him with “a deeper appreciation for the little things.”

The anniversary comes as the National Transportation Safety Board last week released a report about the ill-fated flight near the town of Superior. It isn’t the final report, which will likely identify a cause of the crash, but it says the helicopter was traveling at high speed at nearly its maximum weight over mountainous terrain.

The evening of Dec. 15, 2015, the medical copter had dropped off a patient at a hospital in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, refueled and was heading back to the city of Globe.

The helicopter was above the Superstition Mountains and its altitude varied from 770 feet (235 meters) to as low as 30 feet (9 meters) above ground level before crashing, according to the report.

Boehm told NTSB investigators that he was conscious after impact. Severely injured and soaked in fuel, he cut himself out of his harness. He described hearing pilot David Schneider, 51, taking a few breaths before dying.

Boehm then found flight nurse Chad Frary pinned under the copter’s skid landing gear. Frary said it was hard to breathe. He died a short time later.

“I wish I could have done more just to make things a little easier for him,” said Boehm, who found survivor’s guilt to be his biggest struggle mentally. “But that’s the hand I was dealt. There’s nothing I can do to change it.”

Boehm used a flashlight to signal at a search aircraft and was rescued roughly five hours after the helicopter went down on the snowy, tree-covered slope.

The helicopter weighed about 4,800 pounds (2,177 kilograms) — 100 pounds (45 kilograms) shy of its maximum weight, the report said.

It also says the aircraft was descending at a maximum speed of 148 knots, indicating the helicopter was going about 170 mph (274 kph), which also could have been a factor, said Jerry Kidrick, a professor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University who teaches advance helicopter operations.

High air speed, low altitude and high weight don’t allow for much time to act if mechanical issues arise, he said.

“I don’t want to say that’s the cause of the accident,” Kidrick said. “The best practice is to fly at an altitude where you have time to react in an emergency. This pilot was not following best practices.”

A combination of extreme maneuvering, high speed, weight and altitude also can lead to a phenomenon known as servo transparency, he said. It’s where aerodynamic forces caused by a helicopter’s main rotor system overpower the hydraulic system. It can lead to the controls being difficult to move or to them moving on their own. Kidrick equates it to losing the power steering on your car.

“It would be as if your car lost it, and you would have to provide your own power to turn the wheel,” Kidrick said.

Schneider, the pilot, had more than 5,600 hours of flight experience. He also had passed a Federal Aviation Administration medical exam a week before the crash.

Air Methods Corp., the helicopter’s registered owner and operator, said Friday that it has always followed the “highest safety standards” when it comes to emergency service crews and equipment.

“However, no level of training can entirely eliminate the multitude of risks inherent in emergency air transportation,” company spokesman Doug Flanders said in a statement. “As a company, we continue to proactively foster and invest in a safe environment for our crews and patients.”

Boehm, who now works as a registered nurse at the Phoenix trauma center that treated him after the crash, said he had flown with Schneider before and never felt in danger. He said he would like to know what caused the crash to get some clarity and closure but that it’s not something that weighs on his mind constantly.

“When you come close to death, you ask a lot of questions,” Boehm said. “I think one of the biggest things I’ve come to realize is sometimes we’re not meant to understand these things. We’re just meant to react and cope with it.”

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