In response to my previous blog, Jon S. brought up some very good points. He questioned whether an EMS pilot would climb into the clouds, autopilot or not, if he or she would face an FAA violation for doing so. He is absolutely right as declaring an emergency does not guarantee a pilot won’t be cited with a violation. The FAA has taken the position that if the emergency is caused by the pilot’s action or inaction, then a violation is appropriate. In many cases the NTSB has upheld the FAA’s decision.
So how does this affect an EMS pilot’s decision making process? Well, in all the EMS Part 135 operations manuals I’ve read there is a defined procedure for inadvertent IMC. Basically, it is to climb, contact the nearest ATC, declare an emergency, and perform an instrument approach. In discussing this with other operators, I was told that the local FSDO has taken the position that if a pilot does the appropriate due diligence that they will not pursue a violation.
According to the NTSB, on June 8, 2008, an EMS pilot in Texas aborted a flight because of low clouds and fog encountered en route. The request was then made to a different operator. The second pilot was notified of the flight and performed a weather check for the route of flight. After his weather check, he contacted his company’s Enhanced Operational Control Center (EOCC) to discuss his weather observations and the previous turn down. Both the pilot and EOCC supervisor were observing 10 miles visibility and ceilings acceptable for the flight. At that time, the pilot or the supervisor did not understand the reason the other pilot turned down the flight. The pilot contacted EOCC a second time to discuss that the previous flight had been turned down because of fog. The pilot and the EOCC supervisor again discussed weather observations with the same conclusion, that the restriction to visibility reported by the previous flight was not observed by any official weather reporting station.
The Bell 407 crashed in densely forested terrain killing the pilot, flight nurse, and paramedic. Sheared treetops indicated initial impact occurred with the helicopter’s main rotor blade system in a straight nose-low attitude. It happened in the exact location where the other EMS pilot had encountered low clouds and lost reference to surface lights. The other pilot told the NTSB there were no traffic or weather concerns at the time of his departure. While en route, approximately five miles south of the hospital, at 1,400 feet he encountered wispy clouds. He descended to 1,200 feet and encountered more clouds, continued to descend to 1,000 feet and encountered even more clouds, and finally descended to 800 feet when the visibility decreased rapidly. He stated that he could see to the east but had lost his surface light reference. He turned immediately to the right, towards the freeway system, and was back in good weather. He stated that the low clouds and visibility were very sudden and dramatic.
Whether a potential FAA violation affected the accident pilot’s decisions that night will never be known. This kind of accident happens too often in EMS operations as some pilots obviously underestimate the potential for a CFIT accident. Better training would definitely help. I think climbing is normally the best option, however, Jon’s point is well taken and EMS pilots who could be put in an inadvertent IMC situation need to be sure they perform reasonable due diligence.
Another good question is whether all EMS operations should be flown under IFR. That’s coming up next.