Local flight service won't fly ambulance

Owners say responsibility of providing service too great for their small business

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Mountain Flight Service is not interested in owning or operating an air ambulance service in the Yampa Valley.

Owners Bob and Cindy Maddox do not wish to bear the responsibility of an air ambulance service, though they would like to see an air ambulance return to Steamboat Springs.

"Cindy and I have come to realize the gravity of what it is, its impact to the community," he said. "It can't be run by a mom and pop business."

The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance crashed Jan. 11 near Rawlins, Wyo. Three of the four people on board died. The fourth was seriously injured. It was the second time in less than two years that the air ambulance crashed. The air ambulance also crashed in March 2003 near Kremmling. The three people involved in that crash walked away with minor injuries.

Mountain Flight Service had a contract with the hospital to operate the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance. Mountain Flight Service provided the plane, pilot and most of the equipment on board, and the hospital provided the medical crew and portable medical supplies.

The partnership between the two was formed in 2001. Mountain Flight Service has operated the air ambulance since 1994. Bob and Cindy Maddox purchased the company in January 1997

Yampa Valley Medical Center has been evaluating the air ambulance program since the crash.

The best solution for returning air ambulance service would be to create a nonprofit entity to provide the service, Maddox said. He would allow the nonprofit to use the company's assets, such as its commercial license. But, he wishes to no longer be the owner of the service.

"We looked back over the last two months, and it is a huge amount of responsibility and personal responsibility for Cindy and me to bear," Maddox said. "It needs bigger shoulders."

Hospital spokeswoman Christine McKelvie said Thursday that the hospital board has not made any decisions about replacing the air ambulance service.

"Our ideal situation would be to have an aircraft located here," she said.

Since the Yampa Valley Air Ambulance went out of commission in January, the hospital has used other air ambulances across the state to transport 20 patients from its facility.

Last year, YVMC had 135 patients flown out of its hospital, and Mountain Flight Service has had more than 1,200 missions since beginning its operations.

Hospital CEO Karl Gills is the one most heavily involved in researching the hospital's options for replacing the service, McKelvie said.

McKelvie could not give a timeline for when the hospital would make a decision.

Maddox said insurance costs were not a factor in the decision to discontinue operating the air ambulance. Mountain Flight Service covered the insurance on the plane and those on board, Maddox said.

Their insurance policy is up for renewal this summer, and the cost of replacing a plane is covered. Maddox said he is waiting for the hospital to determine whether the airplane should be replaced.

The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance still has its charter, and Maddox said it could be handed over to a nonprofit air ambulance service. Separately, a charter could take more than a year to acquire and is a very difficult process, he said.

Since the Rawlins accident, Mountain Flight Service has been under the scrutiny of the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. The agencies have made numerous visits to the business in the past two months, Maddox said.

Their commercial operating license remains intact, and the charter flights from Mountain Flight Service are running. The only changes the business had to make from the reviews were some editorial fixes in their regulation manuals, Maddox said.

Maddox said preliminary reports indicate that a small ice storm, which was not forecast, contributed to the crash. Earlier this month, Maddox joined NTSB officials in examining the plane's wreckage, which is being stored in Greeley.

The Pilot & Today has tried to contact NTSB investigator David Bowling numerous times in the past six weeks. Those efforts have been unsuccessful.

In its preliminary investigation released days after the accident, the NTSB found ice on the wings, tail, landing gear tires and propellers of the plane. At that time, Bowling said ice and weather most likely were a factor in the crash.

The Yampa Valley Air Ambulance went down at about 9:45 p.m. Jan 11 about 2.5 miles northeast of the Rawlins Municipal Airport. The flight crew left Steamboat and was in route to pick up a patient from the Carbon County Hospital.

Pilot Tim Benway, 35, was killed in the crash. Also killed were air ambulance director and flight nurse Dave Linner, 36, and flight nurse Jennifer Wells, 30.

The sole survivor of the crash Tim Baldwin, a 35-year-old emergency medical technician, suffered injuries and continues to recover. In past interviews, Baldwin said he remembers nothing about the crash.

--o reach Christine Metz call 871-4229

or e-mail cmetz@steamboatpilot.com

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