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Mercy Flights: 20 years trouble-free

Although 2008 was the deadliest year ever for medical helicopters nationwide, Mercy Flights in Medford hasn't had a crew fatality in the past 20 years.

Ken Parsons, Mercy Flights' general manager, said pilots and staff consistently monitor the weather and don't accept missions where weather conditions and safe landing zones are uncertain.

"The biggest concern is the weather in the Pacific Northwest," Parsons said.

"We don't do bad weather in the helicopter," he said.

Mercy Flights is a nonprofit ambulance service that provides medical transport by ground ambulance, helicopter and fixed-wing planes to patients in Jackson and Josephine counties. It responds to about 200 emergencies a year with the helicopter, most of which are heart attacks, car crashes and injuries related to hunting and outdoor sports.

"It is used mostly for critically ill and injured patients where time will make a difference," Parsons said.

For example, a helicopter can travel from Medford to a burn center in Portland in an hour and 15 minutes, while a ground ambulance could take about five hours.

Mercy Flights ground ambulances respond to about 20,000 emergencies a year. Mercy Flights also has two, twin-engine aircraft that are used for transporting patients between medical facilities. Helicopter crews will respond to calls within a 100-mile radius; planes will transport patients as far as 300 to 400 miles.

In all cases, pilots can choose whether or not to accept the call. Dispatchers minimize the amount of information the pilots know about the patient so that sympathy does not influence their decision, Parsons said, and they'll say whether the mission has been rejected by other emergency crews.

"The best way to be safe is to not respond to other people's accidents," Parsons said.

Mercy Flights helicopter pilots "turn down two or three calls a month during the winter months," he said.

Parsons said that pilots must refuse service when hazardous materials at the scene could be disturbed by the helicopter and cause further injury; when visibility is less than 1,500 feet forward and 1,000 feet upward; when the patient is combative and can't be restrained; or at night when the landing zone is unfamiliar to the pilot.

For safe landing, the helicopter must have at least 75 square feet free of wires (150 feet at night), less than a 10 percent slope on the ground and crowd and animal control.

Parsons said Mercy Flights takes every precaution to make sure the emergency response team and the patients are safely transported.

Each flight is preceded by a mechanical inspection and followed by a debriefing to review the mission and see whether there are any areas where safety could be improved. The fixed-wing aircraft and the helicopter are inspected based on time and flight hours, and the Federal Aviation Administration also inspects the plane a couple of times a year.

Mercy Flights subscribes to the CONCERN Network, which provides information regarding accidents in the air-medical and critical-care transport community to raise awareness of safety hazards.

Even with regular inspections and new night-vision goggles, additional safety measures could be added, Parsons said. He would like to see instrument landing systems and automated weather stations at more regional airports, mountain passes and hospitals. He also would like to install a Terrain Awareness and Warning System in the helicopter.

"If there was no limit to the money we could spend, a new helicopter with that equipment would be a nice improvement," he said.

Safety increased when Mercy Flights hired pilots rather than relying on volunteer pilots, Parsons said. Mercy Flights now has 12 full-time pilots and three part-time pilots who are regularly trained in the latest emergency and medical procedures.

"Years ago, it was the public and responders' perception that there was nothing more honorable than risking your life to save someone else's life," he said.

Since the company was founded in 1949 by George Milligan, there have been two fatal plane crashes. Milligan and three others died on Feb. 9, 1985, less than a mile from the Medford airport when their plane temporarily lost power. Three people were killed on Aug. 21, 1989, when their plane hit a power pole while attempting a landing in fog at the Gold Beach airport.

There have been no other fatal crashes since then. Four or five years ago, a helicopter caught fire while returning from picking up a patient in the Applegate, but was able to land safely at the Medford airport, with the crew and patient unharmed.

"Everyone wants somebody rescued, but it's irresponsible to endanger yourself or your own crew doing it," Parsons said.

Reach intern Teresa Thomas at 776-4464 or at intern1@mailtribune.com.

Mercy Flights General Manager Ken Parsons says his nonprofit organization has avoided helicopter crew fatalities by carefully monitoring the weather and declining missions in which conditions and safe landing zones are uncertain. Mail Tribune / Jim Craven - Jim Craven