An Air Corps helicopter took off with one of its doors unlocked after members of the public began to take photos as a critically ill patient was being rushed to hospital with life-threatening injuries.
The crew had to ask onlookers to stop taking photographs, with an advanced paramedic trying to position himself so that the patient’s head would not be visible. As the helicopter took off again from the Phoenix Park in Dublin and while flying back to base at Baldonnel, the unlocked door fell off mid-air — luckily only hitting the roof of an unoccupied building.
An investigation report, released under FOI, said a decision had been made to keep the helicopter’s “rotors running” in part due to the number of people at the scene. It said there were a number of distractions including people taking photos, difficulties with access for the ambulance on the ground, and a new requirement making wearing of face masks compulsory for the crew. The report also said the installation of a “Covid-19 screen” in the aircraft had affected the air crew’s ability to communicate easily with each other.
The helicopter had flown from Custume Barracks in Athlone to a house in Co Kildare to pick up a “young adolescent suffering life-threatening injuries” in May of last year. It took off for Tallaght Hospital in Dublin, but mid-flight the patient’s condition was deteriorating and they were diverted to the Mater Hospital on the other side of the city.
Because the Mater did not have a landing site, the pilot was told to land at the Army Grounds in the Phoenix Park to meet an ambulance crew there.
However, there were already difficulties on the ground as the ambulance struggled to gain access to the landing site because of traffic control posts installed to tackle illegal parking in the park.
The report said: “There was a large amount of onlookers present, some of whom were taking photographs of the aircraft. The [onboard paramedic], who had opened the port door to step out of the aircraft in order to gain better access to the patient’s airway, was conscious of this fact and positioned himself at the patient’s head and pulled across the port door in an attempt to obstruct the view of the patient.”
A crewman gestured at onlookers, pleading with them to stop taking photographs of the helicopter and the critically ill patient.
The report added that before take-off, no physical check was made on the starboard door to see if it was closed or locked. As the helicopter sped up mid-air however, “the starboard door departed the aircraft”.
“The crewman immediately verbalised that the door was gone, and the PF [pilot flying] began to reduce the airspeed to 80 knots (92mph).”
The door was retrieved from a disused building in Clondalkin, but investigators believed it had been moved by “bystanders” in the meantime.
The handle was found to be in the UP (unlocked) position and the door locking rods had not been deployed; it was damaged beyond repair.
The report said distractions had played their part in the incident, including a concern that members of the public might have approached the aircraft had it switched its engines off.
A spokesman for the Defence Forces said: “The Irish Air Corps has a robust and proactive safety reporting culture."