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State sues feds over 2008 medevac crash

The state has filed suit against the federal government alleging air traffic controller negligence contributed to a fatal Maryland State Police medevac helicopter crash on a foggy night in September 2008.

The complaint, which comes a month after the lone survivor of the crash filed her lawsuit against the United States, seeks $4.1 million, the insured value of the helicopter. The Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania already paid that sum, minus a $100,000 deductible, to Maryland.

The state and its insurer claim that various air traffic controllers failed to direct the chopper’s pilot, who was carrying two car accident patients and two paramedics, to a safe landing at what is now known as Joint Base Andrews Naval Air Facility. The chopper, an 18-year-old Aerospatiale SA365N1, collided with a tree in Walker Mill Regional Park in Prince George’s County just before midnight on that Sept. 27 and broke into three main parts, along with other debris.

A National Transportation Safety Board accident report, adopted in October 2009, found the probable cause of the accident to be the pilot’s decision to make a “rapid descent” but also cast blame on the air traffic controllers’ “inadequate…handling” and failure to provide current weather information.

The families of the two paramedics who died also sued last year, and their cases were consolidated in October. Survivor Jordan Wells, 18, whose leg was amputated and who has undergone several surgeries, seeks $50 million, and the estates and survivors of the deceased also ask for millions of dollars.

The plaintiffs’ attorney for the state and the Insurance Company of the State of Pennsylvania, Jonathan Stern, declined to comment, but the former air traffic controller and flight instructor’s complaint is quite detailed and sharply worded.

The last person who might have prevented the tragedy —Andrews Air Traffic Controller Teal N. Hyman — “never advised Trooper 2 that he was descending too rapidly, was unusually low, that she ‘lost him on radar,’ or that she could not see him because the control tower was shrouded in fog,” according to the state’s suit, filed Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Greenbelt.

“Indeed, the evidence suggests that — despite the fact that Trooper 2 was the only aircraft she was in communication with at the time — she was not paying attention to Trooper 2,” the suit alleges.

Spokesmen for the Federal Aviation Administration, which employs the air traffic controllers, and the U.S. Department of Justice, which will defend the case, declined to comment. Federal government attorneys have denied liability in the other cases, arguing some of the same points about pilot error that the NTSB noted in its report.

Baltimore attorney Robert Schulte, who represents the family of deceased Maryland State Police paramedic Mickey Lippy and is pleased to see the state take action, said the case keeps him up at night because of the way pilot Stephen Bunker was “abandoned” in his hour of need.

“Their performance was abysmal,” said Schulte, who’s been flying for 20 years. “It was terrible.”

Bunker and Lippy, 34, took off from the Andrews base just after 11 p.m. to fetch 17-year-old Ashley Younger and Wells, who had been in a car accident near Waldorf. Tonya Mallard, 39, a volunteer paramedic, boarded the aircraft along with the patients. (Bunker’s and Younger’s families have not sued.)

Bunker, who had been flying for almost half his 59 years,  intended to take Younger and Wells to Prince George’s Hospital Center, but visibility was poor — “we ran into some heavy stuff,” he told his first air traffic controller — so he decided to land at Andrews.

According to the state’s suit, that air traffic controller at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport didn’t tell Potomac Terminal Radar Approach Control, Bunker’s next ground contact, that he was headed that way.

“The failure to do so increased the pilot’s workload, making an already stressful situation more stressful,” the suit states.

That became a theme in the following minutes, according to the suit, as Potomac TRACON Air Traffic Controller Kendall Young “was slow to respond, made the pilot repeat his requests, and offered no assistance.” In fact, he offered 5-hour-old weather information that suggested conditions were better than they were and did not coordinate with the Andrews air traffic controller.

After being cleared to land, Bunker told Andrews controller Hyman that he was not “picking up the glidescope,” which provides a pilot vertical guidance as he makes his approach to the runway.

Her reply: “It’s showing green on the panel but you’re the only aircraft we’ve had in a long time so I don’t really know if it’s working out or not.”

Bunker then asked for ground-based radar help in landing, but Hyman responded that she was not “current” on airport surveillance radar approaches and couldn’t give one, according to the state’s suit. Shortly thereafter, Trooper 2 entered a steep descent and crashed more than three miles short of the runway.

“[Hyman] just couldn’t have been bothered,” said Schulte, of Schulte Booth, P.C. “And that’s frustrating to me. Their job is to protect the people who protect us. And they failed miserably.”

Since they began operating in 1970, state police EMS helicopters had gone down five times before the September 2008 crash, and the last fatal incident was in January 1986, according to the NTSB report. Since, the state police agency has implemented better weather evaluation and additional training for pilots.