Iraq war creates shortage of night vision gear in US
By Ryan J. Foley
The Associated Press
Copyright 2008 The Associated Press
MADISON, Wis. — The war in Iraq is creating a major — and perhaps deadly — shortage of night vision goggles for civilian pilots who fly medical helicopters in the U.S.
The National Transportation Safety Board has encouraged the use of such equipment since 2006 to reduce the risk of deadly nighttime crashes during emergency medical flights. But air ambulance services that fly sick or injured people to the hospital have been put on waiting lists of a year or more by makers of night vision gear because the U.S. military has contracts that give it priority.
"The war in Iraq escalated and the goggles weren't available," said Gary Sizemore, president of the National EMS Pilots Association and a pilot in Perry, Fla. "We were put on a waiting list."
Sizemore estimated only 25 percent of the 800 or so emergency medical helicopters in the U.S. have the technology. He said he would like such gear on his own helicopter so he could better navigate the dark pine forest he routinely flies over in northern Florida.
Night vision goggles take the tiny amount of light from the stars or the moon and amplify hundreds of times, enabling the pilot to see in the dark and avoid flying into mountains, wires or other obstructions. The NTSB said the technology could have prevented 13 of 55 crashes of medical helicopters it analyzed in the 2006 report.
Since that study, five U.S. medical helicopters have crashed in the dark, killing 16 people, according to an NTSB database. An NTSB spokesman said it was not clear from the preliminary reports how many of the helicopters lacked night vision gear. The accidents are still under investigation, and it is not known whether such equipment would have made a difference.
The shortage came into focus last month after one of those crashes — an accident in which a helicopter used by the University of Wisconsin Hospital's Med Flight program slammed into a bluff, killing a doctor, nurse and pilot. The chopper had no night vision gear.
Air Methods Corp., a Denver company that leased the aircraft and is the nation's biggest operator of emergency medical helicopters, said its plans to install night vision goggles in its fleet of 348 had been slowed by the shortage. About 40 percent of its choppers have them, and the rest should be upgraded by the end of 2011, said vice president Mike Allen.
Law enforcement agencies such as sheriff's departments that use helicopters for search-and-rescue missions are also facing delays.
"There's a lot of frustration out there," said Mike Atwood, owner of Aviation Specialties Unlimited Inc. in Boise, Idaho. The company is the exclusive distributor for ITT Technologies, the nation's largest manufacturer of the latest generation of night vision goggles.
Some companies have been so discouraged by the wait that they have delayed placing orders, which only puts them further back in line, Atwood said. He said the wait time has dropped more recently to six to eight months.
"We understand the demand, but as a defense contractor our first priority is to the U.S. military needs," said ITT spokeswoman Allison Moore. "We want to make sure our war fighters are safe, but we do try to meet the needs of the medical flight industry through our distributor."
She said ITT has boosted its production capacity to try to meet demand for domestic users. Moore said the company had received orders for more than 250,000 goggles from the military since 2005. She refused to release overall sales figures.
The other major manufacturer, Northrop Grumman, is selling its night vision goggles unit to L-3 Communications Corp. Both Northrop and L-3 had no comment.
Pentagon spokesman Lt. Col. Brian Maka said night vision technology is widely used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan and it is up to the industry to meet demand.
"We are one of their clients essentially," he said. "It is a technology that we need for our soldiers to maintain their advantages over the enemy."
The goggles cost about $11,000 each. Most helicopters also require new lighting in the cockpit to reduce the glare for the pilot. Those modifications can cost $20,000 or more for each aircraft.
Just over one-third of emergency medical flights occur at night, but they account for half of the crashes, studies show.
"Nighttime is a problem time in this industry," said David Kearns, a flight nurse in Denver. His crew uses the goggles to navigate the mountains.
"It greatly enhances the safety of nighttime operations," he said. "We find the goggles to be extremely useful."