Spike in medical helicopter crashes elevates safety concerns

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TUCSON, Ariz.-- One medical helicopter down, three crew members dead. It's a horrific scene many people witnessed in Tucson in July and now a recent crash in Arkansas has elevated the concern for helicopter safety.

Tucson Medical Center flight nurse Suzanne Knepper heads up in a helicopter two to three times a week to help pre-mature babies get the medical attention they need. "When infants are in distress, it's usually a very acute thing," Knepper said. "We have to get there right away and the time in travel in southern Arizona is quite long."

Knepper says the medical chopper is vital in saving lives, but so far this year, helicopter crashes have also taken the lives of 21 people nation-wide. It's a sharp spike from last year.

The latest crash happened in central Arkansas Tuesday morning. Three crew members died. That crash marks the fourth fatal accident this summer, among those, the LifeNet chopper which crashed down in midtown Tucson, also killing three crew members. "Any death is very significant and obviously a tremendous loss and we're very concerned as an industry as a whole about the number of accidents that result in fatalities," said Craig Yale, a spokesperson for Air Methods.

Yale says the industry has taken more precautions over the past year, including the use of night vision goggles for crew members and warning systems which alert pilots of any obstructions. "We go through safety checks with our own equipment and then when we get up on the helicopter we make rounds with pilot and we all agree that what we've seen so far is safe and that we're all ready to fly," Knepper said.

Despite all the safety checks, Knepper and her team know something can always go wrong. "Accidents happen in a helicopter, in an ambulance," said Flight Nurse Pat Brown.

But they say they can't live in fear of losing their own lives. The minute they board, their focus is on saving the lives of others.