A single-engine light plane carrying a patient to the Mayo Clinic crashed into Lake Michigan on Friday, 27 July, raising concerns about the safety of general aviation. The airplane was flown by a private pilot who had volunteered to transport the patient from Alma to Rochester, MI. The airplane was not flown by an emergency medical services (EMS) company that specializes in transport/evacuation of patients. Rather, the airplane was owned by Freed Construction of Alma.
The Cessna 206 was regularly used on a volunteer basis to transport patients to the Mayo Clinic.
On board the aircraft was owner Jerry Freed and pilot Earl Davidson. Also on board were three other individuals, whose names are not known at this time.
The airplane crashed into the lake about 10 am off the shore of Ludington, a resort town on Michigan’s west coast. A small fishing boat rescued a survivor about two hours after the crash. At this point, the fate of the others is not known but they are presumed dead.
The airplane was equipped with an emergency locator transmitter (ELT), or radio beacon, that was activated on contact with the water. The ELT signal is detected by satellite and can be used to pinpoint the location of the wreckage.
The planned flight was some 150 miles one-way.
Pilot Davidson reported loss of engine power to an air traffic controller at Minneapolis about 10 minutes before the plane went down. The power problems apparently began about one-third of the way to Rochester; the airplane doubled back over Lake Michigan and then descended steeply near Ludington.
Coast Guard search and rescue operations are continuing.
The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) will be investigating the crash. Among the issue to be covered:
— The lack of cockpit voice and data recorders, and the absence of a cockpit video recorder, which would have at least captured the status of instruments, controls, and the pilot’s actions.
— The use of a Part 91 General Aviation airplane to transport the patient. Under Part 91, there are no standards regarding pilot flight and duty time, and maintenance records are also considerably less rigorous and detailed than for a Part 135 (air taxi) flight. Companies specializing in patient transport are required to transport patients under Part 135 regulations, which are considerably more demanding. Under Part 135, a risk assessment of the flight was necessary and flight following by a company dispatcher should have been routine. As a General Aviation operation, neither criteria was required.
— The use of a single engine piston transport for basically an overwater flight over a lake known for its cold water (and reduced survival time). In this case, the airplane could have flown to Benton Harbor, along the shore to Gary, and west up through Janesville, enroute to Rochester.
— The presence in the airplane of life preservers and rafts, and whether or not the preservers were donned (uninflated) before the airplane crossed into the overwater portion of its flight.
News reports of the crash involving a “medical transport plane” may give their readers the illusion that this was a formal EMS flight by a company specializing in that kind of operation. It wasn’t; it was a Part 91 operation in which the owner and pilot were performing a voluntary service for a non-paying patient.
The Part 91 accident rate is far higher than for Part 135 (air taxi) or Part 121 (scheduled airline) operations. Patients and their relatives and care givers may not be aware of the poor safety record of Part 91 operations.