On Saturday, September 27, 2008 at approximately 11:57 PM, the Maryland State Police Aviation Command lost Trooper 2, an American Eurocopter Dauphin II that was attempting to land at Andrews Air Force Base. Trooper 2 was diverting to Andrews due to deteriorating weather. Authorities identified those killed as Stephen J. Bunker, 59, the pilot, a retired state trooper working as a civilian pilot; Trooper Mickey C. Lippy, 34, an onboard paramedic; Tonya Mallard, 39, a volunteer emergency technician with The Waldorf Volunteer Fire Department in Southern Maryland; and Ashley J. Younger, 17, a recent high school graduate who was one of the car crash victims. Jordan Wells, 18, of Waldorf, the driver of the car in which Younger had been riding, survived and was hospitalized in critical condition at Maryland Shock Trauma Center in Baltimore.
The aircraft had been on a mission picking up the two patients from an auto accident in southern Maryland. As the helicopter flew north, the weather - which minutes before wasn't too bad, with seven miles of visibility and broken clouds reported at 1,300 feet - deteriorated. Investigators said that visibility at ground level dropped to four miles and that clouds had dropped to 500 feet, with some scattered clouds at 200 feet. While still south of Andrews, investigators said, Bunker contacted approach control facility just before midnight requesting a diversion to the Air Force base, from where ground ambulances could take the two victims to Prince George's Hospital Center. While attempting an instrument approach to Andrews, Trooper 2 disappeared from the radar.
What Happens Next?
Although the mainstream media reported that the Maryland State Police grounded their fleet after the crash as an abnormality, it is in fact, a safety driven decision that is commonly made after a crash. Most police aviation units will ground their fleets to make certain there are no glaring operational, procedural or safety issues that contributed to the crash. Is the fuel supply contaminated? Is there a mechanical deficiency? These safety stand-downs examine procedures and operational parameters. It also allows fellow aircrews and colleagues a chance to "decompress" and mourn their lost peers.
After a few days, the MSP fleet returned to service. The mainstream media also pointed out that Trooper 2 did not have Terrain Awareness Warning System (TAWS). Many reporters made the correlation that TAWS would have prevented the accident. It should be noted that most aircraft in the United States do not have TAWS and they complete instrument approaches daily without this equipment. TAWS is a wonderful tool to help a pilot in situational awareness but just as a more powerful handgun does not necessarily insure safety for a police officer, more sophisticated equipment does not necessarily insure safety in aviation.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Investigation
The NTSB dispatches a go team to the scene of major accidents and they conduct an incredibly detailed and comprehensive investigation. The Go Team consists of experts from many fields including pilots, mechanics, engineers, weather experts, air traffic control personnel and scientists. In cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the aircraft manufacturer and local crash investigators, the investigation will cover such areas as crew training and experience. Human factors including crew scheduling and operational procedures will also be scrutinized. The investigation will examine the airframe and associated components for abnormalities or defects. The weather at the time of the accident will also be examined and analyzed. All FAA equipment including radar and instrument approaches will be tested and checked for proper operation. If necessary, the NTSB will recreate the flight in a simulator and "fly" various scenarios to determine possible problems. The NTSB will also conduct any mechanical/scientific tests that they deem necessary to learn the cause of the accident. In about 9-12 months the NTSB will issue a probable cause statement as to what they determine to be the main factors that caused the crash.
The Maryland State Police Aviation Command
The MSP has long been regarded as one of the premier police aviation units in the country and has maintained an excellent safety record. Their crew training, experience and equipment have always been a standard that many other police aviation units emulate. In fact, a recent legislative audit praised the helicopter unit's safety record, saying it was well above the national average for emergency medical services. One air safety investigator called the Maryland State Police program the gold standard for rescue services. This crash highlights the often high-risk missions that sometimes take the best.
One thing is certain, the MSP will take a long and hard look at their aviation operation and, based on the findings and recommendations of the NTSB, they will implement the necessary steps to prevent future accidents. Unfortunately, the accident comes at a critical time for the MSP Aviation Command. The MSP Aviation Command has been trying to replace their aircraft fleet and has encountered some resistance from elected officials based on budget and (perhaps some political) concerns. It is hoped that these officials do not use this accident to grandstand their opinions and attempt to cut any additional funding.
May retired trooper Bunker, Trooper Lippy, EMT Mallard and Ms. Younger rest in peace.