California Air Ambulance with 3 Aboard Crashes

November 16, 2009
Abram I. Bohrer

Investigators said the pilot of a medical helicopter issued a mayday early Saturday moments before the aircraft crashed into a hilly area north of Reno near the Nevada-California state line.

All three crew members – the pilot, flight nurse and paramedic – were killed.

Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators spent Saturday combing the wreckage of the helicopter, an Aerospatiale AS350, about 29 miles northwest of Reno in Lassen County as they searched for clues about the cause of the crash.

Pilot James Bradshaw, 39, of Hawaii, Chief Flight Nurse Clinton Reger, 40, and Chief Flight Paramedic Christopher Ritz, 37, both of Susanville, died in the 2 a.m. crash, Mountain Lifeflight of Susanville announced Saturday afternoon.

The company operated the helicopter and provides medical helicopter service for communities in northeast California, including Alturas, Chester and Quincy.

There was no patient on board, the company reported.

The helicopter had dropped off a patient at a Reno hospital and was returning to its base in Susanville, FAA spokesman Ian Gregor said. The aircraft was destroyed in the crash and fire. The wreckage was set to be taken to a salvage yard today.

Gregor said the pilot was not communicating with air traffic controllers at the time of the accident.

The helicopter was built in 1982, according to FAA records.

The crash was the second fatal crash of a Mountain Lifeflight helicopter while on a return flight to Susanville after delivering a patient to Reno.

On March 21, 2002, a Eurocopter As-350B operated by the company hit the glassy surface of Honey Lake about 11 miles from Susanville and tumbled into the chilly water, according to the NTSB. That crash killed the pilot and seriously injured the two medics onboard.

NTSB investigators determined that the 2002 crash was caused by pilot error for not maintaining altitude, compounded by the reflective surface of the lake’s water.

Just before hitting the water, the pilot said over the intercom, “Boy, it’s disorienting when the lake is this smooth,” according to a NTSB report.

Both helicopters had transported patients to the Renown Medical Center in Reno, which changed its name from the Washoe Medical Center about four years ago, before crashing.

An average of about four fatal medical helicopter crashes occurred per year from 2002 to 2007 nationwide, Gregor said. That number spiked to eight fatal crashes last year. He said there has been one other fatal crash so far this year.