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Three Lives Lost in Air Ambulance Crash Revives Safety Debate

Comstock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- A pilot and two flight nurses on their way to pick up a patient who needed medical help never made it, after the emergency medical helicopter they were flying on went down in a corn field in Illinois, killing all three on board and raising new questions about the safety of the flights.

According to local press accounts, the pilot was just shy of retirement, and one of the nurses on board leaves behind two children. The chopper crashed about 8:30 p.m. Monday near Rochelle, Ill., some 90 miles west of Chicago.

The life flight helicopter, owned by Rockford Memorial Hospital, had been dispatched to another hospital an hour’s drive away to transport a patient back to Rockford.

A farmer who lives nearby told ABC News’ Chicago station WLS-TV that he heard a terrifying noise.

“All of the sudden I seen a red light come out of the sky, and (it) nose dove right into the ground out here,” said Michael Bernardin.

He and his wife got in their pickup and began looking for the crash site. Those on board have been identified as pilot Andy Olesen, and flight nurses Jim Dillow and Karen Hollis.

The Rockford Register Star newspaper reported that the 65-year-old Olesen, who’d been a life flight pilot for nearly 19 years, had planned to retire next week.

Both Dillow and Hollis had worked as flight nurses for more than a decade. According to the Register Star, Hollis was the mother of two daughters, ages 12 and 14.

In a statement, Rockford Health Systems said, “Our hearts are heavy. We grieve the loss of three heroes who dedicated their career to serving others.”

The National Transportation Safety Board, which has long been concerned about air ambulance safety, is investigating the accident. Investigators will take a close look at the weather at the time of the crash.

The hospital said the pilot had radioed that that weather was bad, and he was turning around. That was the last contact with those on board.

Emergency helicopter flights are risky operations, often operating at night and in poor weather. In 2008, there was a rash of accidents: 12 crashes and 29 fatalities, the worst year on record. The NTSB found that there was pressure on the industry to operate the flights quickly, in all kinds of conditions.

It can be a lucrative business, and in some cases there was fierce competition among companies to pick up patients. In other instances, patients who were not critically ill and could have been transported safely by ground were instead loaded onto air ambulances.

In 2009, the NTSB issued 19 recommendations to improve safety. Those recommendations are still awaiting final action by the Federal Aviation Administration, which proposed tougher safety standards two years ago, but has still not enacted them.

The NTSB recommendations called for everything from better weather information for pilots, to better training for flying in harsh conditions, to risk evaluations before every flight.

An NTSB official told ABC News Tuesday that there have been “significant safety problems” in the past, and these operations remain a concern of the safety board.

This latest tragedy is the first deadly helicopter life flight crash in more than a year. The previous accident, in August 2011 in Missouri, killed three crew members and a patient. Both of these accidents involved EMS helicopters operated by Air Methods, a company that flies out of 300 locations in 48 states.

On its website, Air Methods says it takes safety very seriously, and has spent more than $100 million on safety measure in the past six years. Company Vice President Craig Yale told ABC News that it “mourns the loss of the crew, and has the family in our prayers.”

Yale said that Air Methods is the largest air medical operator in the country, and flies more hours than any other air ambulance company, about 150,000 hours a year.

Yale said “one accident is too many," but that the company’s accident rate is about half the national average.

The industry trade group the Association of Air Medical Services says its members have voluntarily made some significant improvements in safety.

“We are working to implement a culture of safety throughout the industry,” AAMS President and CEO Rick Sherlock told ABC News.

The group says there are more than 900 MedEvac helicopters operating in the United States, transporting approximately 400,000 patients a year.

As one measure of the safety improvement, Sherlock pointed out that 90 percent of the operators now have night vision goggles to help the pilot navigate in darkness. The industry is also moving toward onboard terrain avoidance systems, but Sherlock could not say how many of the EMS helicopters are already outfitted with this equipment.

The NTSB agrees that there has been “some progress” on safety, but says any progress won’t be universal until required by the FAA.

The patient who was supposed to be transported on the helicopter Monday night was instead taken by ground ambulance. His condition is unknown.

Copyright 2012 ABC News Radio

ABC News Radio