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Wednesday, August 18, 1999:

FAA grounds some medical helicopters

WASHINGTON ( AP ) - The government this month effectively grounded over 20 percent of the helicopters that hospitals use to transport critically ill patients, following the fatal crash of a medevac chopper near Houston.

In an emergency airworthiness directive issued Aug. 6, the Federal Aviation Administration said older models of the Eurocopter BK 117 could not be flown in the United States until the helicopters' tension-torsion straps - four bands in the main rotor head - were replaced.

Eurocopter [former Kawasaki-MBB] Bk-117

About 60 choppers were affected. There are an estimated 250 to 280 medical helicopters in the United States, according to Rocky Mountain Helicopters of Provo, Utah.

The company, which claims the largest collection of BK 117s in the country, initially calculated that the grounding would put 30 to 40 people daily at risk because medical helicopters transport the most seriously injured people.

However, Rocky Mountain and its competitors were largely able to substitute helicopters and move around aircraft to compensate for the loss of BK 117s, so there was little actual effect on public safety.

``We were a little uncomfortable as they started this (grounding) process that they were prematurely parking a number of aircraft on a perceived risk versus a known risk to the patients,'' said Karl Poulsen, head of aviation services at Rocky Mountain.

An FAA spokeswoman said the agency did not publicize the grounding because it affected only about 60 helicopters, the bulk of which were concentrated in the Southwest.

``We just felt like, for the impact it had on the total fleet, it didn't warrant a press release,'' said agency spokeswoman Alison Duquette. ``It wasn't like (the order) was grounding every EMS helicopter in the country.''

The BK 117 is a twin-engine helicopter with a boxy fuselage and clamshell doors on the rear. Built in Germany by Eurocopter Deutschland, there are about 365 worldwide.

Brenda Reuland, spokeswoman for American Eurocopter Co. of Grand Prairie, Texas, said the helicopters have accumulated over 1 million flight hours, but only the Texas accident has been attributed to the tension-torsion strap. The rotor design has been used in Eurocopter models since the 1970s, accumulating over 25 million flight hours.

The FAA order stemmed from an investigation into the July 17 crash of a Life Flight helicopter near Houston. Witnesses said pieces ``shot out'' of the chopper's rotor head just before it crashed, killing the pilot, a paramedic and a flight nurse. There were no patients aboard.

Some of the affected helicopters are still on the ground, but Eurocopter expects them to return to service by the end of the week.