United States Sues Air Methods For Operating Air-Ambulance Helicopter With “Severely Corroded” Components
FAA issued a Notice of Civil Penalty in 2016
Air Methods an SMS participant
Allegations point to deliberate, repeated violations
What will Air Methods say in defense?
“DENVER – United States Attorney Jason R. Dunn filed a complaint for civil penalties today against Air Methods Corporation. The Complaint alleges that Air Methods violated Federal Aviation Administration (“FAA”) regulations by operating an emergency-services helicopter on 51 flights after having been notified by the FAA that the helicopter’s pitot-tubes—parts necessary to determine airspeed—were “severely corroded.”[see cover pictures]
The FAA regulates the operation of aircraft within the United States. As part of the FAA’s mission to ensure safety, the FAA routinely inspects aircraft within its jurisdiction.
The complaint alleges that on November 4, 2014, an FAA Aviation Safety Inspector inspected an Air Methods helicopter in Tampa, Florida. During that inspection, the safety inspector noticed that the helicopter’s pitot tubes were severely corroded. A pitot tube is a component of the pressure measurement system used to determine airspeed. If a pitot tube is not functioning properly, it can cause the airspeed reflected on a helicopter’s instruments to vary significantly from the actual airspeed, which can present serious safety concerns.
The complaint alleges that Air Methods was aware of the hazards of operating aircraft with severely corroded pitot tubes, as it had previously experienced a helicopter incident where burnt and corroded pitot tubes became clogged, causing the helicopter’s auto-pilot to partially disengage and the aircraft’s instruments to suddenly indicate an airspeed of 30 knots higher than the helicopter’s actual speed.
The complaint alleges that, after being notified by the FAA that the pitot tubes on its helicopter were severely corroded, Air Methods did not fix or replace the corroded parts, but instead continued to operate the helicopter on 51 flights. The complaint alleges that, by continuing to operate the helicopter with severely corroded pitot tubes, Air Methods violated applicable federal regulations. The complaint seeks to recover civil penalties from Air Methods up to the maximum amount allowed by law for the alleged regulatory violations.
“When a federal safety inspector notifies an air-ambulance company that one of its helicopters has a potential safety issue, the company must address that issue,” said U.S. Attorney Jason Dunn. “Air Methods kept the helicopter in the air despite being warned about the corroded pitot tubes, and we intend to hold the company accountable for its actions.”
This case is being handled by Assistant U.S. Attorney Ian Kellogg in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Colorado.”
It is indeed rare for a US Attorney to file a civil complaint seeking civil penalties ($1,402,500 maximum) and such an occurrence is even more unusual in this era of compliance/collaboration/
So why are Air Methods and the US/FAA are in a federal court?
First, the FAA ASI immediately Air Methods of the unairworthy condition and the carrier continued to operate without repair the pitot valve. [per allegations]
Second, the FAA issued a Notice of Civil Penalty in 2016. The CP proposed was $892, 500, a record amount under the Compliance Program. That sets in motion a process in which the FAA and the operator usually agree to a compromise. Evidently, that resolution was not reached.
Third, the complaint allegations describe facts that strongly suggest that Air Methods’ actions were not inadvertent. Intentional violations disqualify Compliance Treatment.
Here are the alleged facts quoted from the Complaint :
…For example, on or around September 12, 2013, according to a Service Difficulty Report submitted to the FAA by AMC, AMC was operating an EC-135 helicopter when the aircraft’s “airspeed suddenly indicated 30 [knots] higher than what was real. Upper modes of the auto pilot would not function . . ..” AMC identified the helicopter’s pitot tubes as the cause of these service difficulties. AMC’s maintenance records reflect that “[b]oth pilot and co-pilot pitot tubes are burnt and corroded. Pilot’s pitot tube is completely plugged and the co-pilot[’s] pitot tube is partially restricted.”
During his inspection on November 4, 2014, the ASI notified the AMC pilot on duty about the corroded condition of the pitot tubes on aircraft N527BF and asked the pilot to inform AMC’s base mechanic. 11. The ASI also took photographs of the corroded pitot tubes, including the photographs attached hereto as Exhibit 1. 12.
The following day, on November 5, 2014, the Principal Maintenance Inspector (“PMI”) from the Denver FSDO notified AMC’s Director of Maintenance via telephone and email about the “severely corroded” condition of the pitot tubes.
What is disappointing is that Air Methods has been an enthusiastic participant in SMS.
Hopefully, the company has defenses to the FAA/US Attorney’s charges. The company has a national footprint and emergency patients everywhere depend on the integrity of its life-saving services. However, if there were flights in which the company operated its helicopter in an unairworthy state, sanctions appear to be appropriate.
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