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Medical Helicopter Crash Kills Three in Wisconsin

Medical Helicopter on landing pad

A medical helicopter crash in Hazelhurst, Wisconsin, on April 26, 2018, killed three people. The helicopter was returning from delivering a patient to a hospital and was about 12 miles from its destination when it crashed. All three people on the helicopter at the time of the crash were crew members. The helicopter crash is a stark reminder of the dangers that face those who provide lifesaving medical air transport to patients who desperately need it.

Eurocopter AS350 Helicopter Crashed into Tree on Return Trip

Investigators found that the medical helicopter, a Eurocopter AS350 B2, crashed into a tree that was about 70 feet tall and broke the branches at the top. It then crashed into more trees as it came to the ground. A preliminary report, released about two weeks after the crash, did not identify why the helicopter crashed into the tree but did say that the night sky was clear and winds were calm.

The last contact with the helicopter was around 10:55 p.m. and at around 11:20 p.m. dispatchers were informed that the helicopter was missing. Because of the hilly landscape, complete with swamps, search and rescue personnel required amphibious all-terrain vehicles to reach the crash site. Rescuers reached the crash site at around 2:15 a.m.

The helicopter, owned by Air Methods Corp. and contracted to Ascension Wisconsin Spirit Medical Transportation as a medical helicopter, was traveling back to Woodruff from delivering a patient to Madison, Wisconsin when it crashed.

Killed in the crash were:

  • Rico Caruso, 34, the pilot;
  • Klint Mitchell, 30, the flight nurse; and
  • Gregory Rosenthal, 43, the flight paramedic and a volunteer firefighter.

Caruso was reportedly certified with the Federal Aviation Administration who had both helicopter and instrument helicopter ratings. He also had a private pilot certificate and, as of his last application for his medical certificate, reported having 3,200 of total flight time.

A ceremony for all three victims was held on Friday, May 4. That ceremony included the Honor Guard and a flyover by air medical transport teams.

Resident Unsure of What He Heard During Wisconsin Helicopter Crash

One resident who lived near the crash site heard the sound of the helicopter crashing to the ground, but said it sounded like a loud muffler. When he got up to look around, he saw no signs of any trouble nearby and the sound had stopped.

“It was a lot of…rotors hitting trees,” Tom Johnson said. “Now that I know it was a helicopter, that makes sense. Since that’s what it sounded like-that chopping sound. Then it was quiet.”

Air Methods Helicopter Inspected Shortly Before Crash

According to the preliminary report, the helicopter was subject to both a 100-hour and 600-hour inspection on April 25, just one day before the tragedy.

“The helicopter was not equipped with a vehicle engine multifunction display or a digital electronic control unit,” investigators wrote in the report. “However, it was equipped with an enhanced ground proximity warning system.” A recording device and a memory card were on board the helicopter but were damaged by the crash. There were no signs of a fire.

Investigators found all major helicopter components at the crash scene, with the helicopter resting on its right side and a two-foot deep impression on the ground.

“The cockpit and cabin area was destroyed,” the report notes. “The fuselage exhibited rearward crushing deformation. The tailboom was attached to the fuselage. The tail rotor gearbox and tail rotor blades remained on the tail. However, the vertical fin had partially detached from the end of the tailboom.”

The pilot’s body will undergo an autopsy. A full report is expected in 12 to 24 months, with investigators looking into all aspects of the flight and of the aircraft’s maintenance records.

Ascension Wisconsin Spirit Medical Transportation and Air Methods Release Statement

Shortly after the medical helicopter crash, Ascension Wisconsin and Air Methods released a joint statement that read in part,

“The past 24 hours have been a whirlwind of emotion and activity as our organizations continue to provide aid and assistance to those impacted by this tragedy. The outpouring of support from our Ascension and Air Methods families, first responders and the community has been significant and greatly appreciated.”

The statement noted that the Howard Young Foundation would use donations to the Helping Hands Fund to help the families affected by the helicopter crash. Meanwhile, a remembrance banner was hung near the entrance to the Howard Young Medical Center campus.

Concerns Raised About Medical Helicopter Crashes

Some experts question how frequently air medical transport is used, noting that there have been 81 fatal accidents involving medical helicopters from 1990 through 2015. In all, during the same period, 217 people died. Including accidents with injuries, but no fatalities, there were 220 accidents in total. Making helicopters somewhat less safe than larger planes is that many helicopters have one engine, so in the event of an engine failure, the results can be catastrophic.

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