Pilot of medical helicopter becomes unresponsive while in flight

Looking back at a story from January, 2019

Bell 206L-4 Long Ranger
File photo of an example of a Bell 206L-4 Long Ranger, operated by CTV in BC. Photo by Marek Wozniak. (This is not the helicopter in the story)

Wildland firefighters on large incidents commonly fly in helicopters, many of them with a single pilot. It is possible that some of those passengers may have thought about what would happen if the pilot was suddenly incapacitated due to a medical event or being struck by a bird or drone. The most-read story on Vertical magazine’s website in 2019 was about just that.

Elan HeadA Bell 206 LongRanger had just lifted off after loading a patient when the pilot became unresponsive. The story covers what happened during the flight and importantly, the long term effects.

It is an excellent article written by Elan Head, a helicopter pilot. Here is how it begins:

“Where are we going?”

It was Jan. 12, 2018. The Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter had just lifted from a scene call near its base in Kinder, Louisiana, north of Interstate 10 between Lake Charles and Lafayette. The patient was a frail, elderly woman who had been sedated and intubated on scene.

In the back of the Bell 206L LongRanger, flight nurse Tara Coupel and flight paramedic Lane Abshire were attending to the patient when the pilot’s voice came over the intercom: “Where are we going?”

“Lafayette General,” Abshire replied, referring to Lafayette General Medical Center, around 50 miles (80 kilometers) to the southeast.

“OK, where?” the pilot asked.

Abshire and Coupel thought at first that there was a problem with the intercom system. They unplugged their helmet cords and plugged them back in; tried telling the pilot again. But he repeated, “OK, where?”

The helicopter was now about 800 feet over the ground. Abshire asked Coupel to get out of her seat and tell the pilot where they were headed. She unbuckled her seatbelt, removed her helmet, and moved forward to tap on the pilot’s shoulder.

“Lafayette General!” she shouted at him. Although she was disconnected from the intercom, she could see him mouthing the words beneath his mic boom, “OK, where?”

After you read the full article, here is a link to a follow-up story about the incident: How Air Evac Lifeteam is helping crews prepare for a pilot incapacitation event

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One thought on “Pilot of medical helicopter becomes unresponsive while in flight”

  1. Detailed, well-written article. The HeliSAS technology is amazing. I imagine before long a full emergency landing system could exist?

    More importantly, we need to address “what-if?” scenarios before they occur. Of course it’s easy to Monday morning quarterback, but brainstorming those ‘freak’, ‘rare’ events beforehand can pay-off in saving lives and property.

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