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Like all flying, rescuing injured by air has risks

In fact, medical helicopters face more perils because they fly lower. And the Gandy towers are one of those risks.

body being hoisted by rescue helicopter
[Times photo: Boysell Hosey]
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    Photos from the crash scene

    © St. Petersburg Times, published April 26, 2000

    It was the kind of close call a pilot doesn't soon forget.

    Lee Zirschky was flying a Bayflite helicopter before dawn in the Gandy area. He was at 600 feet, motoring along at 150 mph, a routine flight on a routine route.

    Then he saw the broadcast tower, one of two 649-footers along Gandy Boulevard. It usually was marked with lights, but on this night in 1987, it was dark.

    "Man, I flashed by within feet," Zirschky said. "I put that copter into a 90-degree turn. I thought we were dead. That happens off and on with EMS flying."

    Zirschky, 52, who flew for Bayflite for the first 5 1/2 years of its existence, said the towers in the Gandy area are familiar obstacles for Bayflite pilots.

    They are routinely routed through that area by Tampa International Airport controllers. Hitting one of the towers in daylight and good weather, as a Bayflite helicopter did Tuesday, is puzzling, he said.

    "That just doesn't make any sense at all," said Zirschky of Fort Myers.

    Zirschky and others were left with more questions than answers as investigators tried to piece together the elements that led to the crash of a Bayflite medical transport helicopter that killed all three crew members on board.

    Bayflite's distinctive teal and black logo has been a familiar sight at trauma scenes since 1986, when Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg began the aeromedical transport service.

    The service frequently responds to bad car crashes, near-drownings and burnings -- the most serious of medical emergencies, in which minutes could matter.

    Bayflite, which also runs helicopter service for St. Joseph's Hospital in Tampa, is the largest hospital-based flight program in Florida and flies to trauma scenes an average of eight times a day, or about 240 times a month, hospital officials said. Last year, the service flew 2,750 patients.

    The service's three helicopters are based at St. Joseph's in Tampa, the Tampa Bay Executive Airport and the Sarasota/Bradenton Airport.

    They cover 12 counties, including Pasco, Hernando, Hillsborough and Pinellas, at a yearly cost of $2-million per aircraft. All are dispatched from Bayflite headquarters at Bayfront Medical Center.

    Tuesday's crash was Bayflite's first. The aircraft are inspected daily, and the helicopter that crashed had checked out fine, hospital officials said.

    But flying emergency medical helicopters is inherently more dangerous than other types of commercial flying because it's typically done at lower altitudes. That increases the likelihood of hitting something, according to industry insiders.

    "Sometimes it's a little difficult not to turn your head when somebody's yelling "help,' " said Ed MacDonald, president of the National EMS Pilots Association, based in Alexandria, Va.

    Said MacDonald: "All you have to be is slightly inattentive for a millisecond and something like this could occur."

    Times staff writer Wes Allison contributed to this report.

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