Medical helicopter crashes near Brownsville

Aerial photo of the crash scene.
Aerial photo of the crash scene.
Misty Brogdon
Misty Brogdon
Cindy Parker
Cindy Parker
Doug Phillips
Doug Phillips

By WMC Staff

BROWNSVILLE, (WMC-TV) - A medical helicopter crashed in stormy weather over western Tennessee early Thursday, killing its crew of three, around the same time another helicopter company had declined to go on a flight in the area because of the weather conditions.

No patients were on board the helicopter operated by Hospital Wing when it crashed in a field about 55 miles northeast of Memphis around 6 a.m., authorities said.

Haywood County Sheriff Melvin Bond said nearby factory workers reported seeing a large burst of lightning, followed by an orange glow in the area of the crash.

He said the helicopter crew was communicating with its base when radio contact was lost. The pilot had given no indication of a problem, he said.

"It was totally burnt," Bond said of the wreckage. Fire-blackened debris could be seen spread across part of the field and one rotor blade stuck straight up from the ground.

Ella Mae Clark, a resident of the area, heard the crash.

"It was like a loud boom and that was it," Clark said.

Hospital Wing, a nonprofit air medical transport service based in Memphis, said in a news release the victims were pilot Doug Phillips, 58, of Bartlett, Tenn.; nurse Misty Brogdon, 36, of Jackson; and nurse Cindy Parker, 48, of Dyersburg.

Authorities said the helicopter had flown a patient from Parsons to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and was returning to its base in Brownsville when it went down a few miles from its destination.

"One of the other pilots had called and talked to them. They said they was about a minute out and they didn't show up," said EMS Director Jimmy Studdard. "And then we came out looking, hoping that they had landed in the field."

"The pilot was not in contact with air traffic controllers at the time of the crash and there had been no indication of problems," said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman with the Federal Aviation Administration in Fort Worth, Texas. Lunsford said the FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board were investigating.

"They (investigators) will look at everything from the aircraft to the weather," Lunsford said. "As the NTSB says, 'man, machine and environment."'

Action News 5 meteorologist Ron Childers said there were thunderstorms in the area at the time and weather could have played a role in the crash.

"This line was showing indications of bowing," Childers said. "There were also wind speeds - wind gusts - of up to 40 miles per hour on the leading edge of that, very heavy rainfall and a lot of lighting in there, and there were even some radar indications of small hail.

"That combined could have led to the crash."

Julie Heavrin, a spokeswoman for Air Evac Lifeteam, said from company headquarters in West Plains, Mo., that the weather at the time was considered too dangerous for their helicopters to fly.

She could not say whether the call was about the same patient who was airlifted by Hospital Wing, but said the request was for an air transfer from Parsons to Jackson at 4:02 a.m.

Keith Holloway, a spokesman for the NTSB, said a team was leaving Washington at midday to examine the crash site. He said the team will be on site for three to five days and a preliminary report would be released about 10 days later.

Hospital Wing has branches in Oxford, Miss., and Brownsville. It operates five helicopters. Jamie Carter, a company board member, said the crashed helicopter was a Eurocraft Astar model and one of the newest in the fleet.

He said it was the first company accident since it began operating in 1986.

"We are suspending operations with the service until we can get our arms around what happened," Carter said.

Improving the safety of emergency medical services flights has been on the NTSB's "most wanted improvements" list since 2008, a year when the industry suffered a record number of fatalities.

There were 41 people killed in 11 EMS helicopter accidents between December 2007 and February 2010, according to an NTSB report.

It said the pressure that crews face to respond quickly during difficult flight conditions, like darkness or bad weather, has led to increased fatal accidents.

Last fall, the NTSB urged the government to impose stricter controls on emergency helicopter operators, including requiring the use of autopilots, night-vision systems and flight data recorders.

Investigators said the Hospital Wing helicopter was traveling about 105 miles per hour when it crashed.

The NTSB revealed in a news conference Thursday night that two instruments were recovered from the crash that can reveal data about what happened during the crash.

A Hospital Wing helicopter crashed at approximately 6 a.m. this morning just east of Brownsville, Tenn.  Three crew members were on board and three fatalities. No patients were on board.  The National Transportation Safety Board and the Federal Aviation Administration are on the scene and the crash is under investigation.

Hospital Wing was founded in 1986 and is a non-profit air medical transport service with direct alliances with the Methodist Le Bonheur Healthcare, Baptist Memorial Hospital, The MED, St. Francis Hospital in Memphis and Crittenden Regional Hospital in West Memphis, Arkansas.

"Nothing like this has ever happened in our history," said Allen Burnette, program director and Chief Operating Officer.  

Hospital Wing pilots have an average of 7,000 flight hours and have undergone extensive training.  The average number of years experience for each pilot is 26 years.  Hospital Wing helicopters are Eurocraft Astar models.  Hospital Wing has performed over 49,000 accident free missions, receiving numerous Air Medical Safety Awards and Certificates.

Copyright 2010 WMC-TV. All rights reserved.  The AP contributed to this story.

Statement from Hospital Wing