Cajon Pass, CA Medevac Helicopter Crash, Dec 2006

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AIR CREWS MOURN 3 KILLED IN CAJON PASS.

San Bernardino County, Calif. - The nation's largest air medevac company grounded most of its Southern California helicopters a day after one of its rescue helicopters crashed near the summit of Cajon Pass in San Bernardino County, giving its personnel time to grieve for the deaths of three crew members, officials said Monday.
The Mercy Air Service Inc. helicopter crashed into a fog-shrouded peak south of Hesperia shortly after sundown Sunday. It had been returning to its base in Victorville after flying a woman injured in a horse-riding accident in Phelan to Loma Linda University Medical Center, authorities said.
Federal transportation officials said the cause of the crash was under investigation and ruled out early speculation that the helicopter struck power lines.
A spokesman for Mercy Air, San Bernardino County's sole air ambulance service provider, said that although the company grounded many of its 15 helicopters in the region Monday, some crews were available to respond to emergencies.
"It's obviously a great loss of really good people," said Craig Yale, vice president of corporate development for Colorado based Air Methods Corp., the parent company of the emergency helicopter unit.
"We'll go ahead and regroup and continue to serve the area."
This year, the NTSB called for stricter safety standards in the medical aviation transport field after an agency study documented an alarming rise in accidents, many of them fatal.
The study noted that of 55 accidents from 2002 and 2005, 35 occurred when no patient was aboard - most often when the aircraft was returning to its base.
The report called on the FAA to change its flight restrictions during inclement weather, which are less stringent when medical service flights are flying without a patient aboard.
Mercy Air, which has units in Anaheim, Victorville, Rialto, El Cajon and Carlsbad, already requires its pilots to use the stricter standards suggested by the NTSB, Yale said.
"It's why our accident rate is lower than the average," he said.
"We do not change our standards. We have already been doing what the NTSB is recommending."
On Monday, Mercy Air released the names of the crew members killed:
Pilot PAUL G. LATOUR, 46, of Apple Valley.
Nurse KATRINA J. KISH, 42, of Moreno Valley.
Paramedic JERALD W. MILLER, 40, of Apple Valley.
LATOUR had 18 years of experience and 3,000 hours of flying time, Yale said. He was employed with Mercy for a little over a year.
Willis Whitlock, who said he lived across the street from LATOUR for roughly a decade, described him as a former Army helicopter pilot who spent much of his career at Ft. Irwin.
LATOUR spent his free time tinkering with cars or taking his family off roading in the desert, Whitlock said. LATOUR'S daughter was married Friday.
"He was a real man's man .. He was always doing something," Whitlock said, nothing that LATOUR had taken a side job as a tow truck driver just so he would have another excuse to work on cars.
Rick Throckmorton, a pilot who used to fly Mercy Air helicopters in Oxnard, said his colleagues were grieving over the death of MILLER, who worked for the company for just under two years. Throckmorton said few paramedics could match MILLER'S skills, especially with putting children at ease.
"When you pick up the kids, you throw them in the helicopter - they're sick, they're injured they're scared and often their parents can't fly with them," Throckmorton said. "He could relate to them, he could calm them down. Just the way he talked to them, looked at them, touched them."
KISH worked with Mercy for almost seven years. Efforts to contact her family and fiends were unsuccessful.
Mercy employees and family members of the crew gathered near the crash scene Monday.
"It's been a long day," said Wayne Richardson, an aviation director for Mercy Air. "We are a tight knit group, and this is like losing a family member."
A dense fog blanketed the area at the time of the crash, but authorities cautioned against blaming the weather prematurely.
The crew had taken the same route earlier Sunday and avoided the foggy area without complications, said Ian Gregor, a spokesman for the FAA. "Obviously, earlier in the day they had flown around and avoided the fog," Gregor said. "We are going to look at the big three to hopefully find out what the cause was: man, machine and environment."
The helicopter flew under visual flight rules and was not handled by air traffic control. Pilots use visual flight when the weather is good enough to allow them to safely control the aircraft's altitude and maintain safe separation from obstacles such as rugged terrain or buildings, Gregor said.
"The fact that is was foggy where the accident occurred does not indicate that VFR was inappropriate," he said.
Investigators from the FAA, NTSB and the San Bernardino County sheriff's and fire departments will take part in the investigation, Gregor said.

Los Angeles Times California 2006-12-12