Medevac pilot fired in investigation

Police say he questioned safety to federal authorities but refused to prove claims

November 08, 2008|By Gadi Dechter | Gadi Dechter,gadi.dechter@baltsun.com

Maryland State Police fired yesterday a medevac pilot who just days before a fatal September crash warned federal authorities that the state's vaunted fleet was not safely operated, officials said.

Helicopter pilot Pete Peterson was terminated for refusing to cooperate with an internal safety investigation, police spokesman Greg Shipley said, and for "other issues" which he could not discuss because they are personnel matters.

"This was an issue of insubordination," said Shipley, who said Peterson refused to provide police officials with the maintenance records he claimed could prove there were safety dangers across the entire 12-helicopter fleet. "We wanted to know what this information was ... so that we could address it."

Peterson, a nine-year-veteran of the helicopter unit, declined to comment yesterday except to acknowledge his firing and confirm that he did send an e-mail to the Inspector General of the U.S. Transportation Department in mid-September warning of "deeply troubling latent failures" in the police Aviation Command.

Peterson also warned that internal safety reports had been "sanitized to protect mismanagement," according to a Washington Examiner article in September.

About two weeks after Peterson's warnings, a late-night medevac crash in Prince George's County killed four people, the deadliest accident since police started flying such missions 38 years ago. The crash led to changes designed to minimize unnecessary use of police helicopters in medical missions, as well as discussions of other adjustments.

Police officials said yesterday that employees have an obligation to "immediately report any hazardous conditions or safety concerns to a supervisor." After Peterson's allegations became public, he was asked to discuss his concerns with police authorities but has refused, officials said.

The publicity around Peterson's whistle-blowing - and absence of evidence supporting his allegations - has created "uncertainty and anxiety among the flight crews," police said yesterday.

In August, a legislative audit of the state's medevac operation found maintenance and record-keeping problems with the aging 12-helicopter fleet, but it praised the unit's up-to-then strong safety record. Police officials say Peterson did not tell auditors about his concerns.

The pilot has a history of airing his safety concerns. In 2005, the Frederick News-Post reported that Peterson called for installation of an air-traffic control tower at Frederick Municipal Airport, saying a collision was likely without one. The proposal has been formally studied but not yet adopted.

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