Monday, March 05, 2012

Ornge: Helicopters’ tail rotors could fall off, says Frank Klees

TORONTO — Pilots, paramedics and patients should be worried about the safety of helicopters used by Ornge, Ontario's air ambulance system, Progressive Conservative transport critic Frank Klees said Monday.

The 12 AugustaWestland 139 helicopters Ontario purchased for $144 million -- only 10 were ever put into service -- have problems with tail rotors falling off, Klees told the legislature.

The former transport minister pointed to an air-worthiness directive he said was issued "just days ago" by the European Aviation Safety Agency. Klees said it warns the owners of the AW139 that they are required to conduct "repetitive inspections" and maintenance of the tail rotors every 25 flight hours, and orders to replace them every 600 hours.

"The reason? They fall off," he said.

Ornge issued a statement Monday saying the Feb. 17 air worthiness directive from the EASA did not apply to the Ornge fleet of helicopters, but an earlier one last August from the agency did place a limit of 600 hours on the tail rotors of the Ornge air ambulances.

"(New) procedures include daily inspections of the tail rotor blades areas if the aircraft had flown," said Ornge spokesman James MacDonald in an email. "These procedures were carried out from August 2011 to February 2012, and no defects were found during this time."

However, Klees said he wouldn't take a ride in an Ornge air ambulance chopper, even in an emergency.

"I would not want to be a pilot, I would not want to be a paramedic and I would not want to be a patient," Klees told reporters.

"Knowing the track record of these helicopters, I would take my chances getting from point A to point B with some other means."

Health Minister Deb Matthews was unaware of the air worthiness directive concerning the Ornge air ambulance helicopters, but said patient safety was a top priority for the new board of directors.

"Patient safety is their No. 1 consideration and they are taking appropriate steps," Matthews told the legislature.

"There is an OPP investigation underway right now, as it relates to irregular financial arrangements at Ornge. It's vitally important that those of us in this house, if we have information, share that information with the OPP."

The government called in police to investigate various for-profit companies set up by Ornge and fired the previous board of directors and founder Dr. Chris Mazza, who was making $1.4 million a year.

The New Democrats said the Liberal government apparently did little to provide proper oversight of Ornge, despite repeated warnings from the opposition parties.

"Whether it's the detail of the helicopters and their safety, or whether it's the fact that all of this information was available to the premier and he did nothing about it, it's all very disturbing," said NDP Leader Andrea Horwath.

"Ontarians should not accept the government's excuses."

The Tories and NDP, both of which have been calling for Matthews' resignation, also want a special committee of the legislature with powers to subpoena witnesses to investigate Ornge, which gets about $150 million a year in provincial funding.

They say an all-party committee would have a broader mandate than the police and could probe lingering issues around quality of care and crew safety and also protect whistleblowers who are afraid to talk about ongoing problems at Ornge.

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