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Medevac system: Turning tragedy to triumph

The Baltimore Sun

As I awakened last Sunday to an overcast sky, dense fog and a steady rain in Sussex County, Del., news of the crash of a Maryland State Police medevac helicopter brought back some very sad memories of an early Sunday morning 22 years ago.

I was the chief spokesman for the Maryland State Police when the phone rang early on Jan. 19, 1986. It was the duty officer at state police headquarters calling to inform me of the disappearance of one of our medevac helicopters overnight and to request my assistance in the search.

It was a rainy, foggy and cold morning that sent me and a cadre of search teams to Frederick County to retrace the flight of Trooper 3, a single-engine Bell Jet Ranger helicopter that had departed the trauma center in the wee hours on a flight back to Frederick County. At that time, the state police had no central dispatcher tracking flights from start to finish, but rather periodic radio contacts with individual barracks along the flight path. It was a system that would soon change.

As we gathered to work our way back to the trauma center in Baltimore, the search suddenly shifted in the opposite direction when we learned of a call to an overnight radio talk show in Baltimore, in which the caller from South Baltimore described hearing a helicopter flying low - and then, dead silence. Search teams finally discovered the wreckage, more than eight hours later, in Leakin Park. Cpl. Greg May, the pilot, and Trooper Carey Poetzman, the flight paramedic, were killed in the crash, as the helicopter went down in near-zero visibility.

The crash of that helicopter devastated the state police family and other public safety servants. There was an immediate sense, however, of the need to find some good in such a tragedy, as emotions quickly turned from sadness to anger at a state legislature that came under fire for not doing more to advance the system and its public servants. An emotional state police commander vented his frustration in Annapolis, saying, "Lawmakers need to get off their wallets." Eventually, the General Assembly agreed to invest in more sophisticated, twin-engine aircraft that addressed priority No. 1: safety, not only for the flight crews but also for the patients they would fly.

I was in the state police hangar at Martin State Airport in 1989, three years after that crash. It was the day the first of several new twin-engine helicopters would be dedicated and placed into service. The $5.5 million cost seemed a small price to pay for such a sophisticated machine, whose twin engines powered one of the most elaborate "bad weather" flight control systems and high-tech communications equipment for both the flight crew and patients. It helped earn the Maryland State Police aviation division its "elite" status among medical transport systems around the world as well as the envy of a highly experienced flight crew that had all the right stuff.

Last Sunday, none of it seemed to matter, as four lives were lost in the foggy chill of another medevac mission gone bad. After 20 years, and tens of thousands of safe medevac missions, it's time to examine this system again - not to criticize or point fingers, but rather to make it even safer. It is also an opportunity to reverse the devastation of such a tragedy into some positive changes that would honor the memory of the brave men and women who have given their lives to save others.

It is vital that we preserve this system by asking our elected leaders to, once again, get off their wallets and stop trying to put a price tag on human lives.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Chuck Jackson, a former spokesman for the Maryland State Police, is executive director of Citizen Advocates for Safe and Efficient Travel.

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