Air Ambulance – The Most Dangerous Job in America?

June 10, 2010

Air Ambulance – The Most Dangerous Job in America?

The Wall Street Journal has listed the air ambulance as the most dangerous job in America. How is it that a business which is supposed to be all about saving lives, is in fact costing medical workers and patients their lives? In 2008 alone; there were 13 accidents and 29 fatalities in the air ambulance business.

The air ambulance is supposed to be a system for extremely critical rescue situations where time is of the essence to get the patient treatment. This system is not designed for twisted ankles, which in fact the air ambulance has been sent up for just that. The medical staff at many hospitals has no choice in whether to go along on an air ambulance flight or not. They either go or they can lose their jobs.

The world’s largest air ambulance service Air Methods Corporation, has 330 aircraft that fly more than 10,000 hours a month. Air methods is a publicly traded company which means the choice between profit and safety is always at risk to the whims of Wall Street.

This is also the situation with many hospitals it’s all about the money. If air ambulance service has become less service and more big business how can we be sure that the real emergency situations will have the necessary air ambulance service and that the specialized team and equipment won’t be off somewhere wrapping a sprain?

What is being done to alleviate the risks involved in air ambulance service? Are the pilots and teams receiving proper training and equipment? Do they have any sort of system to decide what qualifies as a critical situation? There needs to be comprehensive oversights of this business to make sure that the people who need air ambulance service receive the service they need, and that the air ambulance crew is safe.

In May of 2008 after transport of a patient to a hospital in La Crosse Wisconsin, a routine medical helicopter flight crashed and caused the death of Dr. Darren Bean, the flight nurse and the pilot. The helicopter was not equipped with a terrain warning system or night vision goggles. Weather reports indicated light rain and fog; other medical helicopter crews had refused flights in the area that day. There have been questions raised about the pilot’s certification, and the lack of equipment on the helicopter. After all, emergencies don’t always happen when the skies are clear and visibility is wonderful. Yet nearly 2 years later, there has been no announcement by the NTSB as to their conclusion of this accident. Don’t the families of those lost in this accident deserve to know what really caused the deaths of their loved ones?

Attorney Peter Cathcart represented the Bean family in their case against Air Methods. “Although the FAA does not mandate that safety features such as night vision goggles and terrain warning devices be used, why do helicopter owners/operators refuse to give their pilots every opportunity to avoid an accident?”

In a sad and bizarre co-incidence Cathcart’s father also represented the Bean family after Darren’s Bean’s father was killed in the crash of a Beechcraft Queen Air 35 years earlier. Darren’s mother had become a family friend during the first tragedy and it was quite a shock to the Cathcart family when Mrs. Bean contacted them about Darren’s accident.

“It was deja vu.  How could tragedy strike a family a second time in the same manner? I truly hope that my friendship with Stacey lives well beyond the attorney-client relationship.”

The law firm of Magaña, Cathcart & McCarthy has been a pioneer in the investigation of aircraft accidents and prosecution of aviation lawsuits and was able to bring about a resolution for the Bean family without court proceedings.

Dr. Bean’s widow Stacey was also a doctor who has since left her job as an ER doctor and claims that part of that decision is because “I don’t think I could in good conscience call for a helicopter for a patient”.  Stacey Bean now sells personal care and wellness products.

Publisher: Salient News

9 comments on “Air Ambulance – The Most Dangerous Job in America?”

Tweets that mention Air Ambulance – The Most Dangerous Job in America? —

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by David Pomerantz, Salient-news. Salient-news said: Air Ambulance – The Most Dangerous Job in America? – #health #helicopter […]


Seems this rate is about the same as ground transportation. Overall–During 1991–2000, 300 fatal crashes occurred involving occupied ambulances, resulting in the deaths of 82 ambulance occupants and 275 occupants of other vehicles and pedestrians. So considering that flying just by it’s nature involve much higher risk than driving, this is pretty remarkable.


I pilot an AStar helicopter. We now have NVGs, terrain avoidance , traffic collision avoidance and a full time dedicated mechanic. I’m never pressured to take a flight and wouldn’t give in to it if I was. I’m still the weak link because I make the decisions. In my cockpit my crew safety comes first, then the patient and finally the company. I couldn’t care less about the investors or stockholders. We make a difference, one patient at a time. No one cares unless it is their mother or child who needs to get to a trauma center immediately. We don’t fly sprains but we do fly critically ill and severe trauma. Our Med teams are the best and dedicated to helping others to the point of risking their lives. Don’t judge the many by the few. I love what I do and can’t see myself doing anything else.

Flight Paramedic

As a Flight Paramedic that operates on the Astar, EC135, 412 & 222, I could not agree more with “Rotorhead.” I am employed by the company mentioned in the article. I have been a paramedic for 16 years. We operate in a “Safety First” environment. At no time have I ever felt pressured to accept a call (read never!-not once!). I work with the highest-trained, critically-thinking, safety-oriented Professional Rotor Pilots on the planet.

William Winn

Count the number of question marks in the article above. Question marks are an indication that there is much that a writer does not know. At least he, or she, admits it.



Your coment on rate of accidents is not an accurate one as there are exponentially more ground responses /year than air medical responses a year. Therefore , while the number of deaths and severe injuries are similar, the ratio of accident per miles driven/flown or accidents per response are far more severe in the air medical industry.

Again not bashing those who fly, as I once did, but I have seen the pressure to fly less than critical patients, to cater to the seniding facilities to recruit more return buisness, and to fly solely based on MOI even by the administrators of a ground service to “keep more units available”. There is a wide spread problem with the decentralization, poor regulation, and privitization of the airmedical industry. The problems are not solely in the HEMS enviroment, but no where else is the toll so readily apparent.
Unfortunatley, the use of HEMS, like the use of ALS first response, is to many a sacred untouchable cow.


I have been a Flight Paramedic for the last 22 years with a hospital-based service, and our service is an Air Methods contract. Neither the pilots, nor the flight nurses, nor myself have EVER been pressured to take a flight for ANY reason. Anyone on the crew can abort a flight if they are not comfortable, no questions asked. All of us in the industry are acutely aware of the dangers inherent in our chosen occupation, and do all we can to minimize them. It’s not my job to ensure corporate solvency – it’s my job to properly treat and transport the patients entrusted to me, and go home alive at the end of the shift (and I’m very good at my job).


I work with an Air Methods program, and it is always safety first. 3 to go one to say no! Weather is checked before every mission, NVG’s, and terrain avoidance among other safety measures are taken. We have daily safety briefs, and safety, ABOVE ALL ELSE, is priority!!!


The civilian industry has made the leap in medical care by increasing standards but has not adopted the two pilot standard for MEDEVAC that the US Military consistently uses. Daytime single pilot ops in good weather is easy. Night, low ceilings and visibility and the lack of a second pilot increases risk dramatically when conducting MEDEVAC operations that are inherently difficult due to the constantly changing “new” situations that the pilot encounters. Two pilots are better than one.

Comments are closed.