Medical Helicopter Crash Kills Three in Arkansas

A medical helicopter crashed near DeWitt, Arkansas, on November 19, killing all three people on board. The helicopter was on route to pick up a passenger from a medical center when it crashed. The cause of the crash is under investigation, although local officials have expressed concerns about what may have brought the helicopter down. Unfortunately, medical helicopter crashes are all too common, risking the lives of people who are working to save other people's lives. 

Bell Helicopter Consumed by Fire Following Crash 

According to the Arkansas County Sheriff's Office, a witness called the office around 8:00 p.m. on Sunday, November 19, to report seeing a helicopter go down and a fire erupt immediately after. Rescuers arrived at the scene, but had to extinguish the fire. Arkansas County Sheriff Todd Wright told reporters that the helicopter's tail was the only section of the chopper that did not catch fire.

The Bell 407, owned, operated and maintained by Air Methods Corporation for Pafford EMS, was on its way to pick up a patient from Helena Regional Medical Center in Helena-West Helena when it crashed.

The witness also reported that the crash disturbed thousands of geese in the area, causing them to make more noise than she had heard before.

Victims Identified in Medical Helicopter Accident 

Killed in the crash were:

  • Pilot Michael Bollen, 46, from Hot Springs, Arkansas;
  • Flight nurse James Lawson Spruiell, 61, from Sulligent, Alabama; and
  • Flight paramedic John Auld III, 26, of Shreveport, Louisiana.

There were no patients on the helicopter when it crashed.

Dustin Ross, the director for Pafford Air One, released a statement regarding the crash.

"We are all devastated and profoundly saddened by the tragic loss of these valued EMS colleagues and friends. We will continue to try and comfort the crew's families as well as everyone in our employ."

Auld and Spruiell were employed by Pafford Air One. Bollen worked for Air Methods Corp. Pafford Air One offers emergency transport services to communities in Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Oklahoma. Bollen had a clean record with no previous accidents or incidents. He was also certified as a flight instructor, according to the FAA. The helicopter Bollen was flying had no incidents or accidents. 

Some Speculation Concerning the Cause of the DeWitt Helicopter Crash 

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and FAA are investigating the crash. They will examine whether there was a mechanical malfunction, human error or weather conditions played a role in the tragic helicopter crash. An NTSB preliminary report is generally made available within a few weeks of an accident; however, a full report detailing probable causes typically takes 12 months or more.

In the meantime, Sheriff Wright suggested geese could have played a role in the helicopter going down.

"That's what I figure," Wright told reporters. "Every field is full of them, you couldn't put another one in it."

Family Remembers John "Trey" Auld 

Kim Auld, the mother of John Auld (who went by Trey), spoke to KSLA about her son and asked people to remember him by giving back to the community. Trey had a history of volunteering, including running a food pantry as a teenager and volunteering with the local fire department.

"His personality was so infectious," said Randy Long, a friend of Trey's. "Within the first two or three seconds of meeting him, it's just: 'Let me give you a hug. I want to be like you'."

Medical Helicopter Crash Rates "Troubling" 

A 2013 article in Flying magazine noted that the rate of medical helicopter crashes is "troubling." In 2008, according to a witness at a meeting the with NTSB, in 2008 EMS helicopter pilot was ranked as the most dangerous job in America, deemed more dangerous than logging and coal mining. That same year, 12 medical helicopter crashes killed 29 people, including crew members and patients.

Concerns were high enough that in 2008 EMS helicopter safety was added to the NTSB's "Most Wanted" list of safety improvements. There are many factors that could contribute to medical helicopter crashes. In addition to possible mechanical malfunctions, EMS helicopters often fly into risky situations or unpredictable terrain. They often do not log flight plans. There's also a chance that crew feels pressure to get a patient to the hospital quickly—even in dangerous circumstances—if there's a chance the patient will die without treatment.

Although some of the increase in EMS crashes is linked to an overall increase in the number of EMS helicopters in use, the people who save other people's lives should be able to go to work confident that they will return home safely. All too often, they don't