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Tue, Jun 06, 2006

Hospital Execs Say FAA Stood In Way Of Katrina Rescue Attempt

Should Agency Bend Rules In Times Of Trouble?

As the 2006 hurricane season gets underway, we're still processing the lessons from the 2005 hurricane season. And one of those lessons might be found in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reports that the day the New Orleans levees were breached last year, Chuck Hall -- President of the Hospital Corporation of America's North Florida division -- moved to help out his colleagues at the Tulane hospital in New Orleans.

There were 1,200 patients, staff and family members stuck there, and Hall was faced with a tough question: where would he find the airpower to get that many people out of New Orleans?

The answer appeared to be in Destin, FL... a Russian-made Mil-8 MTV helicopter. Larger than a UH-60 Black Hawk and just a tad smaller than a CH-47 Chinook, the Mil-8 (below, right) can carry 26 people at a time... AND enough fuel to fly for upwards of four hours.

Hall thought he had found his answer. After receiving permission from the Mil-8's owner at Oregon's Vertol Systems Company, James Montgomerie -- who then lined up a flight crew -- Hall placed a call to the FAA for clearance to fly the helo. And that's when the plan fell apart.

"First we had clearance, then all of a sudden it's grounded," said Ed Jones, an HCA vice president of supply chain operations. Based in the corporation's Nashville headquarters, Jones was in charge of securing helicopters for the rescue operation.

You see, the Mil-8 is certified under the Experimental category -- as is the case with most ex-warbirds, foreign and domestic. And the FAA is quite clear about its restrictions on Experimental aircraft as far as where they can fly, and how many people can be onboard.

"The big rub was certification versus air space," Jones added.

But... given the nature of the devastation from Katrina, surely an exception could be made, right?

Wrong. "These regulations exist for a reason," said FAA spokesman Les Dorr. "You're talking about a helicopter that simply was not certified to do that sort of flight into that sort of terrain under those kinds of conditions."

The Mil-8 is already in use in 54 countries, where it serves primarily as a transport aircraft, carrying troops and supplies. It can also be used as a gunship.

"I called the guy in standards and said, 'It's a Russian Mi-8, for God's sake," Jones said. "We got people dying on that parking garage. I need to have this aircraft freed up. What do I need to do to get clearance on this thing?"

After a flurry of phone calls, Jones and Hall said the FAA finally granted provisional acceptance to fly the Mil-8 for Katrina evacuations... but then another inspector in Baton Rouge, LA threw a wrench in the works once again, and warned the two not to think of flying the helo until an FAA inspector could come out and give the Russian helo the once-over.

Montgomerie says when he asked the inspector how soon he could be there, the inspector told him "'well I'm kind of busy... I think I can get there sometime in the next six weeks.'"

"I found the Washington bureau [of the FAA] very helpful in trying to get the appropriate approval," Hall added. "I found the folks in Baton Rouge to be somewhat of a challenge in getting the final approval to fly."

Eventually, the FAA did grant a "national interest waiver" that allowed the Mil-8 to be used in the Tulane rescue.... but by the time they received permission, Jones and Hall said, all the people at the hospital had already been evacuated.

"It never was able to fly a mission," Hall said.

There is some good news to report, however... Dorr reports that since the incident, the FAA has come up with ways to streamline the special-issuance process.

"We have had internal discussions about an operational response plan and how we can help to get things done more quickly," he said.

FMI: www.faa.gov, www.hcahealthcare.com

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