Md. sues U.S., calls air controllers negligent in medevac copter crash

4 killed when craft operated by state police went down in 2008

  • Wreckage from the medevac helicopter that crashed, killing four people at Walker Mill Regional Park in District Heights.
Wreckage from the medevac helicopter that crashed, killing… (AP photo )
January 13, 2011|By Nick Madigan, The Baltimore Sun

Maryland officials allege in a $4 million federal lawsuit against the U.S. government that performance failures by air-traffic controllers were a "substantial cause" of a 2008 medevac helicopter crash that killed four people near Andrews Air Force Base.

In the lawsuit, the state and the helicopter's insurer allege that controllers employed by the Federal Aviation Administration failed to pay proper attention to the aircraft in heavy fog, disregarded requests for assistance from its pilot and provided outdated weather information. The suit says controllers were distracted by less-crucial matters and failed to coordinate the helicopter's path and altitude to ensure its safety, among other allegations.

The Aerospatiale Dauphin helicopter operated by the Maryland State Police crashed on Sept. 28, 2008, as it attempted to approach Andrews with two victims of an auto accident aboard. Pilot Stephen H. Bunker was killed, along with paramedic Mickey Lippy, emergency medical technician Tonya Mallard and patient Ashley J. Younger. The other patient, Jordan Wells, suffered severe injuries.

A year later, the National Transportation Safety Board concluded that the chief cause of the accident was the pilot's decision to make a rapid descent, and said Bunker had made an "inadequate assessment" of weather conditions before takeoff. But the NTSB also faulted the performance of air-traffic controllers.

Charles S. Miller, a spokesman for the Justice Department, declined Thursday to comment on the lawsuit, filed the previous day in U.S. District Court in Maryland. The suit was brought by the state of Maryland and the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, which paid it $4.1 million, the insured value of the helicopter, less a $100,000 deductible.

Miller referred a reporter to the government's response to another lawsuit filed in the case, by Christina Lippy, the widow of the paramedic.

In a court document filed Sept. 16, government attorneys said the accident was caused not by failures on the part of the air-traffic controllers, as Lippy alleged, but by Bunker's "conduct." Contributing factors, they said, included the 59-year-old pilot's "limited recent instrument flight experience" and fatigue, "improper use of or malfunction of the autopilot or other aircraft equipment," and a "lack of training, supervision, flight following, and oversight by the Maryland State Police."

The document noted the pilot's "highly unusual and extraordinary conduct in allowing or placing the aircraft in an extremely aggressive and improper descent of over 2,000 feet per minute when flying less than 1,000 feet above ground level, and also in not stopping that descent before crashing into the ground." The government faulted Bunker for failing to "maintain situational awareness, including guarding against spatial disorientation and visual illusions."

The helicopter, known as Trooper 2, had been dispatched from Andrews to the car crash in Waldorf, where it picked up the two patients. On his way to Prince George's Hospital Center in Cheverly, Bunker was confronted with deteriorating weather. He told the tower at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport that he could not land at the hospital and that, if he could not find an opening in the clouds, he would have to fly back to Andrews using only his instruments.

According to the state's lawsuit, the Reagan controller "never inquired whether the pilot was qualified to fly under instrument flight rules" and failed to properly hand over control of the aircraft to the Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control.

Once Bunker had established contact with Potomac, the controller there "walked away from his position to address a low-priority duty, assuming that Trooper 2 would be a routing call, and he did not hear all of Trooper 2's transmission." After repeatedly trying to tell the Potomac controller that he wished to climb to 2,000 feet and "shoot an approach" onto a runway at Andrews, the controller "was slow to respond, made the pilot repeat his requests, and offered no assistance" in an "already stressful situation," the lawsuit says.

The Potomac controller did not assign a transponder code to Trooper 2, which ultimately prevented controllers from receiving warnings that the helicopter was flying too close to the ground before it crashed, according to the suit. It alleges that the controller provided Bunker with weather information that was nearly five hours old and "suggested weather far better" than it was. With correct information, the lawsuit alleges, the pilot "would have known that Andrews was likely enshrouded in fog."

Among other alleged failures, the Potomac controller ordered Bunker to perform an incorrect approach to Andrews, making the maneuver "more challenging" and "did nothing to coordinate with the Andrews tower before switching Trooper 2 over to its frequency," which would have alerted the base that the helicopter required assistance in landing and was carrying patients.

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