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In November of last year, a Boeing 747 Dreamlifter touched down at Jabara Airport in Wichita, Ks. While the landing was a safe one, there was still an overriding concern – the plane landed at the wrong airport. This and several other recent incidents have raised public awareness about the efficiency and timeliness of air travel. During this blog, we will explore the causes of such incidents.
In an era of GPS navigation such an error would seem unthinkable. However, there have been 150 such occurrences over the past twenty years. To gain insight to the problem, we must understand the air control process. The most common source of aerial navigation errors is when a metropolitan area has several airports in close proximity with similar runway alignments. Wichita, for example, has a strong aviation presence with a number of airports throughout the community. When pilots fly by instruments, a set of radio signals intersect at the location of the inbound airport. Instrument flying is relatively error free – provided the data is properly entered. When pilots attempt to approach an airport visually, the probability of error increases, although both methods are used in approximately equal proportions. Pilots most frequently utilize GPS navigation or VOR, Very High Frequency Omni- Directional Range radio signals and Distance Measurement Signals (DME), to guide them to a close proximity of the airport, then the pilot must rely solely on a visual approach.
There are inherent safety risks when an aircraft scheduled to land at a larger airport must land at one one-half or two-thirds it’s size. Although there is often less traffic at smaller airports in sparsely populated areas, collisions upon take off and landing are a distinct possibility. Smaller private planes and jetliners are not a good mix in utilizing a small airport. A related issue is an airliner must land in a smaller runway, causing both stress on the aircraft and passengers, as well as the airport facilities. Other hazards are concrete barriers separating runways, which are sometimes difficult to see at night, in addition to vehicles performing runway maintenance. Providing checklists for pilots approaching smaller airports would enhance safety, since many airline pilots are accustomed to operations at major airports. However, for all of the navigational errors over the past twenty years, no major collisions have occurred, which may indicate the safest device is an alert air controller.
In 2001, two events occurred which shaped the military and law enforcement applications of UAVs( unmanned aerial vehicles), or more commonly called drones. The first event happened on April 1 of that year, in which a U.S. Navy EP-3A signals intelligence aircraft collided with a Chinese J-811 interceptor approximately seventy miles off the coast of Hainan Island. While the Chinese aircraft was destroyed, the EP-3A was able to land safely on Hainan Island with the crew eventually released and the plane shipped back to the U.S. in sections aboard a Russian freighter. On September 11, the World Trade Center towers were destroyed by terrorists crashing jetliners into the towers. Both situations underscored the need for an unmanned aircraft. In the case of the Hainan Island incident, a means of gathering signal intelligence without the vulnerabilities of having a crew forced down over hostile territory. In the September 11 case, a means of destroying and neutralizing the leadership of terror cells without direct military intervention.
While such aircraft have been successful in the war on terror, drones are being considered for use in domestic operations such as homeland security, disaster relief and law enforcement. Although relatively few drones are currently flown over U.S. soil, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) predicts that about 30,000 drones could be flown domestically within 20 years. Both members of Congress and the public have expressed concerns about privacy and other civil liberties. While ground-based law enforcement must have a search warrant to enter an individual’s residence, there is currently no such restriction for drones. This is because the airspace above a home is considered a public space. Two approaches under consideration to correct this are to obtain a search warrant detailing the specific use of the drone and the filing of a data collection sheet, stating the time, date and property to be photographed. Another aspect of this is previous court rulings allowing manned aircraft to collect evidence above a residence, in which a 1989 Supreme Court ruling allowed imagery of marijuana growing in a greenhouse taken by a helicopter. With drones getting ever smaller, nosy neighbors could pose a similar threat.
Drones are currently regulated by the FAA, which prohibits people from using them commercially and requires public institutions to apply for authorization to use them. However, all of this will change in 2015, when the agency is directed by Congress to open domestic skies to commercial drones, and to integrate the use of both manned and unmanned aircraft. Based on existing law, surveillance of an individual while in their home, using technology not in general public use, would be in violation of their rights without a search warrant. Perhaps the key factors are whether the drone was flying over a public place or private residence and was the search considered active (crime in progress) or continuous surveillance. While Congress has shown a willingness to debate the issue, much of the privacy battles may be fought at the local level, with each state developing standards for law enforcement use of drones and how to regulate the use of drones by individuals.
The history and development of medical transport closely parallels developments in both aviation and medical technology, since physicians have sought to use aircraft in patient care from the earliest days of flight. During the course of this blog, we will trace the progress of in-flight care from the trainer aircraft of World War I to the turbine helicopters of today.
Ironically, the need for in-flight medical care arose from pilot training injuries during World War I. To support expansion of the Air Corps, a number of new airfields were constructed in remote areas of the country. If a student pilot were injured in a crash, it could be several hours to the closest hospital. Therefore, the Air Corps undertook a novel approach and converted a number of Curtiss JN-4 “Jenny” trainers to flying ambulances. Although several versions were built, the patients were enclosed in the fuselage without the benefit of in-flight care. In spite of the limitations of the aircraft, the USAAC system became a prototype for other air ambulance services.
By World War II the emphasis was on long range medical evacuation, involving the use of large cargo planes. These aircraft were large enough to accommodate in-flight care while transporting the injured to theatre hospitals, where they could receive more comprehensive care. While the cargo planes were a quantum leap in both service and technology, there was still a pressing need for small aircraft capable of flying from the forward areas to small field hospitals in the rear. The Cessna Birddog and other small fixed wing aircraft were modified to carry stretchers and medical supplies. Sikorski YR-4B helicopters were first used in Burma in 1944 to evacuate soldiers from isolated areas behind Japanese lines. Although the early helicopters had a limited capacity, their missions were successful. By Korea, dedicated helicopters such as the Bell 47 and Sikorski R-5 were able to provide timely evacuation of the wounded, reducing the fatality rate from the 4.5% of World War II to 2.5%. In Viet Nam, with the use of the Bell UH-1 Huey, the fatality rate was further reduced to less than 1.5%.
The success of military medevac programs inspired civil efforts, as well. Project CARESOM was initiated in Mississippi in 1969, in which several military helicopters were provided to the state by a federal grant to transport patients in underserved areas of the state. The city of Hattiesburg continued the program and became the first civilian medical air unit in the United States. Another experiment, the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST), was formed in 1969 at Fort Sam Houston to use military helicopters to supplement civilian providers. The program was highly successful and spawned services such as Flight For Life Colorado, which began in 1972, along with the Air Ambulance program in Canada, which was established in 1977 by the Ontario Ministry of Health. The Ontario program also transferred patients between facilities. One of the first helicopter services independent of any hospital, Mercy Flight WNY was formed in 1981 in New York state and is one of a few not-for-profit providers. Today, there are more than 200 medical transport firms in the United States with the number growing. The scope of their services has grown, as well. Medics can now perform emergency procedures done by ER doctors, just a few years ago.