Air Methods AS350B3 Air Ambulance Tail Strike at Tucson Medical Center, AZ (N544AM)
On 16 October 2021 an Air Methods Corp (AMC) helicopter air ambulance Airbus Helicopters AS350B3, N544AM, suffered a tail rotor strike on landing on an elevated helidpad at Tucson Medical Center, Arizona. The four occupants were uninjured. The US National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has released a brief preliminary report and (on 21 December 2021) a short public docket. The helicopter was transporting a patient in daylight from Nogales, Arizona. The pilot had flown 3188 hours, 161 on type. As the helicopter came over the elevated helipad the tail rotor contacted the handle of a large wheeled fire extinguisher.
What is noticeable is the extinguisher potion and that the helicopter had landed significantly off centre. The satellite imagery shown in Google Maps suggests this is not uncommon.
Furthermore the extinguisher, which the satellite imagery above suggests is normally in this location (albeit with no apparent ready access or safe space for any waiting ground personnel), is only marginally higher than a series of metal handrails around the helideck shown below.
There is no perimeter netting to minimise obstructions as is common elsewhere (e.g.: UK CAA CAP1264: Standards for helicopter landing areas at hospitals). One would hope the safety investigation considers the layout of hospital’s heliport and the adequacy of the design standards used.
As seen above, not only was the tail rotor damaged but debris impacted the tail boom and punctured the horizontal stabiliser.
In 2017 the FAA changed Part 135 so that helicopter air ambulance operators have to comply with a new Flight Data Monitoring (FDM) System requirement, FAR 135.607. FAA AC 135-14B Helicopter Air Ambulance (HAA) Operations explains that the system…
…should record digital or analog raw data, images, cockpit voice or ambient audio recordings or any combinations thereof which ideally yield at least the following flight information: • Location; • Altitude; • Heading; • Speeds (airspeed and groundspeed); • Pitch, yaw, and roll attitudes and rate of change; • Engine parameters; • Main rotor RPM; • Ambient acoustic data; • Radio ambient audio; and • Any other parameter the operator deems necessary (e.g., high definition video recording looking forward including instrument panel and forward cockpit windshield view, intercommunications system (intercom) between pilot and medical crew, communications with air traffic control (ATC), OCS, base operations, first responders at scene, hospital, etc.)
So a competent and comprehensive safety investigation would have access to extensive data, and other non-volatile memory data (such as GPS data) from the aircraft too, to elevate the approach and determine the effectiveness of the FDM program in routinely monitoring approaches and providing constructive feedback to crews.
NTSB Probable Cause (UPDATE: 29 April 2022)
The NTSB have have issued the laughably un-insightful probable cause:
The pilot’s failure to maintain clearance from ground equipment during landing.
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