UPDATED: Hospital Wing chopper crashes in inclement weather

A medical helicopter operated by Hospital Wing, based in Memphis, TN, crashed into a wheat field outside Brownsville, TN at approximately 6:00am Thursday morning in the midst of a thunderstorm. WMC-TV reports that the chopper was returning to its Brownsville base a couple of miles from the crash scene after transporting a patient from Parsons, TN to Jackson-Madison County General Hospital (JMCGH) in Jackson, TN (approximated flight path shown in the graphics above). There were no patients onboard, however the three crew members – a pilot and two flight nurses – were killed. The chopper, a Eurocraft Astar AS350B3, was one of the newest in the company’s fleet. The company’s website indicates each is outfitted with XM satellite weather.

According to WMC, another medical transport helicopter company refused the transfer due to the weather conditions before Hospital Wing transported the patient. Quoting WMC: “Improving the safety of emergency medical services flights has been on the NTSB’s ‘most wanted improvements’ list since 2008, a year when the industry suffered a record number of fatalities.” This is the first accident for Hospital Wing in it’s 23-year history.

The radar image above is from the Memphis (Millington) Doppler Radar operated by the National Weather Service and taken at 6:00am. The location of Brownsville is noted. A line of thunderstorms can be seen roughly over the crash site at the time of the accident. Witnesses nearby reported seeing “a large burst of lightning, followed by an orange glow in the area of the crash,” according to the Haywood County Sheriff.

The line passed over Memphis International Airport about 5:15am and produced heavy rain, thunder and lightning, reduced visibility to 1.25 miles, a few clouds at 900 feet with the main deck of clouds at 2,000′ above ground level, and nearly 0.20″ of rain in less than 10 minutes. When it passed over Jackson-McKellar airport (about 20nm east of the accident site) at about 6:15am, it produced similar conditions: heavy rain, thunder and lightning, reduced visibility to 2.5 miles, a few clouds at 900 feet with the main deck at 1,800′, and about the same amount of rain in a brief period. Wind gusts at both locations peaked just below 20 knots, or 23 mph.

Observations from personal weather stations in the area from Memphis to Humboldt recorded similar conditions to the two main airports. In Henning, TN (approximately 20 miles west of the accident site), heavy rain was noted at 6am. In Humboldt, TN (approximately 25 miles northeast of the accident site), wind gusted to 26 mph just before 6:30am and heavy rain was reported.

There were no Severe Thunderstorm Warnings in effect. However, a Significant Weather Advisory was issued for counties just southwest of the accident site, including all of the Memphis metro area, at 5:09am for the possibility of very heavy rain, pea-sized hail, and 40 mph wind with the line. The line was moving northeast at 60 mph according to the NWS.

4/12/2010: The preliminary NTSB report on this crash was released today. Initial indications are that the aircraft was “destroyed when it impacted terrain” at 6:00am, 2.5 miles from its base at the Haywood County EMS Heliport in Brownsville. The helicopter departed JMCGH at 5:51am for the short flight to Brownsville. According to phone records between a company pilot just coming on duty and the flying pilot and a flight nurse, the flying pilot knew of the impending bad weather and was apparently attempting the “beat the storm.” The meteorological analysis from the NTSB is consistent with that which was previously reported in this posting. Though there were reports of lightning and thunder at the time of the crash, there was no evidence found to support a lightning strike to the aircraft itself.

MemphisWeather.net wishes to express our condolences to the families of those lost in this tragic accident and asks you to keep them in your thoughts and prayers during this most difficult time.
Images above courtesy Weather Underground, Google and WMC-TV 5.

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