DALLAS — The crash of an air ambulance in the South Carolina woods last September eventually turned into a troubling statistic for a North Texas company.
Exactly what happened in the accident remains uncertain, although the pilot, paramedic and flight nurse on board were killed.
Three people also died last weekend in the fiery crash of a medical helicopter at Fort Bliss near El Paso.
"It was just like in the movies; you get that knock on the door and unfortunately it was not good news," said a tearful Kim Archuleta, whose flight paramedic husband, Anthony, was killed in the crash.
Both aircraft were owned by Addison-based Omniflight, one of the largest air ambulance services in the country. It has 100 aircraft in 18 states, according to its Web site.
But the company's name has appeared multiple times in recent National Transportation Safety Board reports.
On July 2, 2009, one of its medical helicopters struck steel poles while landing on a hospital helipad in South Carolina. "About 5 feet above the helipad, the helicopter shuttered and vibrated," the NTSB investigative report states. "The pilot continued the landing and performed an emergency engine shutdown. A Federal Aviation Administration inspector subsequently interviewed the pilot and clinicians. The FAA inspector stated that although all three persons had been to the heliport before, they simply forgot about several steel poles aligned adjacent to the helipad. Just prior to landing, the tailrotor struck one of the steel poles, and the helicopter came to rest on the helipad.
Fortunately, no one was hurt but the aircraft suffered substantial damage, according to the NTSB.
September 22: Another pilot ran out of gas and had to make an emergency landing in Arizona. The NTSB described the aircraft's impact as having "landed hard." Though the pilot was not hurt, federal investigators said this helicopter, too, suffered substantial damage.
Three days later, on September 25, 2009, that deadly crash happened in Georgetown, South Carolina, killing all three crew members. The NTSB also described the aircraft as suffering substantial damage. Images from the scene show little recognizable from the helicopter.
On November 4, 2009, a flight instructor and pilot lost control and "landed hard" in Globe, Ariz. Both occupants suffered serious injuries and the helicopter sustained substantial damage, according to an NTSB report.
Then last weekend, on February 5, Archuleta and two others were killed during a training exercise at Fort Bliss Army Post in El Paso.
In all, five Omniflight accidents since July; four of them happened at night.
"That's a terrible pattern, and it ought to get someone's attention - either at Omniflight or at the FAA," said Jon Kettles, a former military pilot who is now an aviation attorney in Dallas. "I think given the pattern they've shown in the last six months, that would certainly warrant an investigation by the FAA."
But the Federal Aviation Administration said it is not investigating Omniflight's operations - even after this most recent deadly crash in Texas.
Still, the FAA acknowledged that it has increased its oversight of the entire air ambulance industry after scathing reports over the years about problems and deadly crashes.
"We are in a constant state of evaluation and scrutiny of our aircraft, procedures and training," Omniflight said in a written statement. "If audits identify any issue that can enhance safety and compliance, we would immediately implement a corrective action plan. In these cases, no commonality of location, weather conditions, training procedures or personnel exists."