Medevac helicopters transport patients to hospitals that can provide them with the best care. So when a helicopter meant to save lives crashes, it can feel doubly wrong. Four years ago, a medevac helicopter crash near McFarland sent shock waves through the first responder community and made headlines all over the Valley.
So how could this happen? Was the company negligent? Was there engine trouble? To try and answer these questions, the National Transportation Safety Board spent years investigating the crash. Investigators corresponded with family members, interviewed pilots and executives from Rogers Helicopters (where the pilot worked), and dug into the company's safety policies. The NTSB released its report in March of this year.
According to the report, Thomas Hampl, the pilot, left the Porterville Municipal Airport on December 10, 2015 just before 7 p.m. He was transporting a patient named Kathy Brown, who was experiencing head, shoulder and arm pain, to a hospital in Bakersfield.
“He actually filled out a pre-flight report that is required by the company to verify that the pilot is approving the various conditions under which he is going to be operating,” says Bill Withycombe, a retired pilot, former accident investigator, and former Western-Pacific Regional Director for the Federal Aviation Administration, the FAA. We’ll be referencing him throughout this story to add context.
Pilots have to fill out risk-assessment sheets to help decide how safe it is to fly. Hampl’s rating showed he thought it was safe to go. A rating of 17 and above means the pilot can decline the flight. Hampl gave this flight a rating of 7.
Even if the conditions were not ideal, Hampl was certified to fly relying only on instruments in low visibility conditions. Not long after lift off, that’s what he encountered.
The first instinct for any pilot is to get out of bad weather, Withycombe says. Hampl started to make a turn to reverse course.
“He was trying to do a 180-degree turn at fairly high airspeeds,” Withycombe says, based on the GPS readings from the aircraft. “He somehow allowed himself to slip into a descent, probably getting confused because of weather patterns that he was flying in, possibly heavy rain and maybe some fog, and lost his reference to the ground, and also lost his reference to the instruments that were right in front of him and allowed that aircraft to hit the deck very hard.”
That evening Sheli Hampl got a call from the company telling her that dispatch had lost contact with her husband. Her world was shattered 15 minutes later, when she learned of the crash. She told a news station in Bend, Oregon where she lived, that she never thought this would happen. Her husband had been a pilot for more than 17 years and had flown all over the U.S.
“He's our family and will be, forever,” she told the reporter through tears. "I just won't be able to see him for a few years now.”
Also on the flight were Marco Lopez, a nurse, and Kyle Juarez, a paramedic. American Ambulance President Todd Valeri said they weren’t even supposed to work that night, but they had switched with two other crew members.
“Last night was our company Christmas party,” said Valeri at a press event the day after the crash. “The crew that was assigned to work the helicopter that night wanted to attend.”
So why did the pilot slip into a descent? Withycombe says the NTSB ruled out many factors: “There was no evidence of any engine failure and there was also no evidence of any instrumentation problems that could have led to him not being able to control the aircraft.”
The conclusion by the NTSB? The pilot lost control while attempting to reverse course in hilly terrain with reduced visibility. But contributing to that was “the pilot’s lack of recent experience with night time operations.” Records show Hampl lacked experience with this particular helicopter. It had newer technology, like electronic displays rather than analog dials and gauges.
Still, Withycombe says that shouldn’t have mattered.
“He should have been, in my opinion, as an instrument rated pilot, able to use his skills by merely looking at the airspeed indicator, the altitude indicator in the cockpit, and being able to maintain his flight stability,” says Withycombe.
But other questions remain, too. Documents also show that at least one former pilot, Seth Velho, told the NTSB in an email that “there is a lack of training and pressure to fly in regards to weather” and that “this accident was icing on the cake.” Rogers Helicopters disputed these comments during the investigation. Velho now lives out of state and declined an interview request.
Both Velho and Hampl’s wife also told the NTSB that Hampl wasn’t comfortable flying at night without Night Vision Goggles (NVG). Nor had he completed the NVG training. He wasn’t wearing them on the night of the crash. But Withycombe says they wouldn’t have helped him see in the fog.
The report did not show fault with Rogers Helicopters. The company declined a request to be interviewed for this story.
Still, Withycombe says the FAA and the NTSB have implemented many changes in the medical helicopter industry in the past five years to make sure rescue operations like these are safer.
So we asked him, what might be different if that flight was taken today?
“In this particular case, more flight time, more training in that particular helicopter than he had at the time,” says Withycombe. “That, I’m sure, is still a focus of the company. Some of the report had information in it that indicated that the company had actually implemented some safety requirements that were probably ahead of their time.”
Requirements like filling out that risk assessment sheet Hampl completed indicating it was okay to fly. Fellow pilot Rob Moore trusted that decision.
On the night of the crash, Moore said in a statement he cancelled a flight from Bakersfield to Fresno because of bad weather conditions. He said he spoke with Hampl, who told Moore he had visibility from Porterville, but would carefully check the weather before his flight. Moore said, quote “Tom was a very thoughtful, safe pilot who was not a risk taker at all and I knew he would make the correct decision.”
But risk is hard to quantify and even the right decisions can end in disaster -- in this case, a disaster that took the lives of four people and broke the hearts of many family members, co-workers and friends.