Report Blames Faulty Maintenance in Life Flight Crash

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Times Staff Writer

A Life Flight medical helicopter crashed in La Jolla two years ago because of a control system failure resulting from “improper company maintenance” by the firm operating the service for the county’s trauma system, federal investigators have concluded.

In the report released Tuesday in Washington, the National Transportation Safety Board said maintenance personnel hired by Evergreen Helicopters of McMinnville, Ore., had failed to comply with an air-worthiness directive issued by the FAA for servicing the helicopter.

But an attorney for Evergreen said that the NTSB’s findings only stated that a control system jammed, and did not find Evergreen at fault.


“The government believes that the accident occurred because of a jamming in the helicopter’s control system maintenance, regarding a (mechanical) fix that the manufacturer requires to be done on the helicopter,” said attorney Fred C. Begy from his Chicago office. “The government would not say why the control system jammed. We still don’t know what caused the accident.”

Evergreen executives declined to comment on the NTSB report. Evergreen, under a contract with the county trauma system, provides helicopters, pilots and maintenance personnel for Life Flight. Medical personnel on the helicopters are provided by UC San Diego Medical Center.

Earlier Report

Tuesday’s final report agrees with a preliminary report released in January, 1987, by Jim Wall, a Los Angeles-based NTSB investigator.

Wall had found that a valve controlling pressure on a secondary hydraulic control system was improperly installed by the manufacturer and could have been corrected by maintenance crews. A wrongly installed valve can result in major difficulty in controlling the craft.

That secondary hydraulic system had kicked into operation on the helicopter after the primary system failed in flight for reasons investigators were unable to determine.

The hydraulic control systems operate by forcing liquid through tubes or other devices to create pressure, which then is directed to operate various mechanical systems on the craft.


The flight control system in the Messerschmitt-Bolkom-Blohm helicopter was manufactured by Teledyne Hydra-Power of New Rochelle, N.Y. Teledyne Hydra-Power executives could not be reached for comment.

The West German-made helicopter crashed onto Interstate 5 early on May 9, 1986, shortly after takeoff from Scripps Memorial Hospital in La Jolla. The helicopter was at about 150 feet when it lost power. The pilot, David R. Patrick, attempted to circle back to the helipad at Scripps, but the helicopter crashed on the freeway.

Patrick suffered a concussion. He was pulled from the wreckage and treated by medical crew on the helicopter, Dr. Philip C. Mathis and nurse Mary Anne Yorkoski, both of whom suffered less severe injuries. The $1-million aircraft was destroyed.

Lawsuit Filed

Yorkoski later required surgery to correct a brain bruise. She sued Evergreen, MBB and Teledyne. She could not be reached for comment.

Patrick, who no longer works for Evergreen, is suing MBB and Teledyne for negligence in the design of the equipment. He could not be reached for comment. Mathis, an emergency room physician at Scripps Memorial Hospital in Encinitas, also could not be reached for comment.

The accident is the only one in the history of the 8-year-old Life Flight program.

Life Flight’s three-helicopter fleet is a key component of the San Diego County trauma system, providing rapid medical evacuation throughout the county’s 4,300 square miles.


Two helicopters, one at UCSD Medical Center in Hillcrest and one at Palomar Airport in Carlsbad, are staffed and on alert around the clock. A third operates on weekends and holidays from Gillespie Field in El Cajon.

In the wake of the 1987 crash, some doctors threatened to quit the Life Flight program, saying that they were forced to take unnecessary flights that put them at personal risk. After a meeting with Life Flight officials, the doctors reconsidered and continued flying, a UCSD Medical Center spokeswoman said, adding that physicians no longer fly on the helicopters except in special circumstances. A team of two nurses or a nurse and a paramedic now make up the medical crew.