BROWNSVILLE, Tenn. (AP) - A medical helicopter crashed in stormy weather over westernTennessee early Thursday, killing its crew of three, around thesame time another helicopter company had declined to go on a flightin the area because of the weather conditions.
No patients were on board the helicopter operated by HospitalWing when it crashed in a field about 55 miles northeast of Memphisaround 6 a.m., authorities said.
Haywood County Sheriff Melvin Bond said nearby factory workersreported seeing a large burst of lightning, followed by an orangeglow in the area of the crash.
He said the helicopter crew was communicating with its base whenradio contact was lost. The pilot had given no indication of aproblem, he said.
"It was totally burnt," Bond said of the wreckage.Fire-blackened debris could be seen spread across part of the fieldand one rotor blade stuck straight up from the ground.
The National Transportation Safety Board had nine investigatorson the scene Thursday afternoon, and chairwoman Debbie Hersman saidthe safety of medical helicopters is a high priority.
"That's why we launched such a big team from our headquarters,"she said at the crash site. "We are concerned about these type ofcrashes."
Hospital Wing, a nonprofit air medical transport service basedin Memphis, said in a news release the victims were pilot DougPhillips, 58, of Bartlett, Tenn.; nurse Misty Brogdon, 36, ofJackson; and nurse Cindy Parker, 48, of Dyersburg.
Authorities said the helicopter had flown a patient from Parsonsto Jackson-Madison County General Hospital and was returning to itsbase in Brownsville when it went down.
"The pilot was not in contact with air traffic controllers atthe time of the crash and there had been no indication ofproblems," said Lynn Lunsford, a spokesman with the FederalAviation Administration in Fort Worth, Texas. Lunsford said the FAAwould join the NTSB in the investigation.
"They (investigators) will look at everything from the aircraftto the weather," Lunsford said. "As the NTSB says, 'man, machineand environment."'
Investigators recovered two aviation instruments that could givemore information on cause of crash, NTSB vice chairman ChristopherHart, said at an evening news conference.
He said the helicopter crashed about a mile or two from its baseand its last known speed was 105 mph. There was no evidence of astructural failure, he said.
Hart also said the pilot had over 2,400 hours of flight time andwas qualified for instrument flying.
Rich Okulski, a supervisor in the Memphis office of the NationalWeather Service, said there were thunderstorms in the area at thetime and weather could have played a role in the crash.
Okulski said a thunderstorm was occurring at the time of thecrash at McKellar-Sipes Regional Airport in Jackson, about 25 mileseast of Brownsville, and a line of thunderstorms had clearedMemphis.
Julie Heavrin, a spokeswoman for Air Evac Lifeteam, said fromcompany headquarters in West Plains, Mo., that the weather at thetime was considered too dangerous for their helicopters to fly.
She could not say whether the call was about the same patientwho was airlifted by Hospital Wing, but said the request was for anair transfer from Parsons to Jackson at 4:02 a.m.
Hospital Wing has branches in Oxford, Miss., and Brownsville. Itoperates five helicopters. Jamie Carter, a company board member,said the crashed helicopter was a Eurocraft A-star model and one ofthe newest in the fleet.
He said it was the first company accident since it beganoperating in 1986.
"We are suspending operations with the service until we can getour arms around what happened," Carter said.
Improving the safety of emergency medical services flights hasbeen on the NTSB's "most wanted improvements" list since 2008, ayear when the industry suffered a record number of fatalities.
There were 41 people killed in 11 EMS helicopter accidentsbetween December 2007 and February 2010, according to an NTSBreport.
It said the pressure that crews face to respond quickly duringdifficult flight conditions, like darkness or bad weather, has ledto increased fatal accidents.
Last fall, the NTSB urged the government to impose strictercontrols on emergency helicopter operators, including requiring theuse of autopilots, night-vision systems and flight datarecorders.
Associated Press Writers Randall Dickerson and Joe Edwards inNashville contributed to this story.
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