Saturday, July 20, 2013

ORNGE: Two nighttime crashes prompt a second look at goggles that help pilots see their surroundings and avoid disorientation in deep darkness

OTTAWA—Helicopter pilots flying to nighttime medical emergencies in Ontario may get some high-tech help to see through the inky darkness.

In the wake of two night crashes — including a fatal accident on May 31— ORNGE says it is now considering equipping its helicopters with night-vision goggles.

The sophisticated gear gives pilots a better view of their surroundings in darkness, to aid in takeoffs and landings and watch for hazards.

“It’s absolutely on the table,” said Dr. Andrew McCallum, president and CEO of ORNGE, the province’s medical transport service, which operates both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters to move patients around Ontario.

“I’m looking at it with a positive disposition ... I want to make certain we make a good choice,” he told the Star in an interview.

Questions about the safety of night operations—and the possible advantages of night-vision goggles — were raised by the midnight crash of an ORNGE helicopter in Moosonee on May 31 that killed two pilots and two paramedics.

Investigators have so far ruled out mechanical failure as a cause of the crash. One possibility is “controlled flight into terrain,” a situation in which pilots inadvertently fly into the ground, usually in conditions of poor visibility or darkness.

That was determined to be the cause of an earlier air ambulance accident in 2008, when a Sikorsky S-76A hit trees during a landing at a helipad in Temagami. Three of the four crew on board were seriously injured.

That accident should have been the catalyst for the agency to introduce night vision equipment in its helicopter fleet, one former air ambulance pilot told the Star.

“I believe that if the pilots had been using (night vision goggles) that they would have been able to see that they were low on the approach path and been able to correct for it, preventing the accident,” the pilot said.

He worried that it was “only a matter of time” before ORNGE suffered an accident.

“It only makes sense that if pilots can see something they will not fly into it,” he said. “Now that (night vision goggles) are commonly available, there is no good reason for them to not be used by ORNGE.”

McCallum, who joined ORNGE in January, agrees that the 2008 crash should have prompted consideration of night-vision goggles.

“It’s not helpful to revisit the events of years back, but this is a consideration that is coming now — but it could have been considered five years ago,” he said.

McCallum says the service will be looking at the experience of other Canadian operators, such as STARS, an air ambulance agency serving Western Canada.

“We’ve got people in the industry who use them now in Canada ... we’re going to leverage those types of contacts and make the best decision we can,” he said.

If ORNGE decides to go with night-vision goggles, it won’t be a quick or easy transition. For starters, the pilots would have to be trained and get experience flying with them.

The task would also require a costly retrofit of its helicopters, since ORNGE did not require its newly purchased fleet of Agusta-Westland AW139 aircraft to be compatible with night-vision goggles.

But the experience of other air ambulance operators suggests the technology is worth considering.

“Night-vision goggles increase safety, and it does that by dramatically increasing the pilots’ ability see in the dark. It allows greater access to patients,” STARS spokesperson Cam Heke said.

He said all its pilots are trained and certified to use the goggles, and all its helicopters have been equipped with the technology since 2003.

“It’s part of how STARS operates,” he said.

The agency has bases in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, but Heke said the technology has proved especially valuable on night flights from Calgary and Edmonton, responding to calls in the mountains.

“It’s very useful in difficult terrain in the mountain areas,” he said.

Night-vision goggles are a “huge safety multiplier,” said Ken Lawson-Williams, a Canadian who works as a flight nurse on fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters with a company that flies across the U.S. Southwest.

“It’s a clichĂ©, but it’s literally a night and day difference ... It’s just amazing,” he told the Star in an interview.

He said the true value of the goggles is that they allow pilots to keep their “situational awareness” and avoid becoming disoriented, which can happen when visual clues disappear in the darkness.

The goggles have their shortcomings. They narrow a pilot’s field of vision. Rain on the windscreen can distort the view, and clouds remain impenetrable to view.

“So it’s not the perfect answer for everything. But it does make a huge difference on a clear, no-moon, dark-environment night,” said Lawson-Williams, who worked as a flight paramedic in the Canadian north and Alberta before moving to the United States.

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