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Dense Fog grounds UW's Med Flight

Published: Wednesday, Dec. 4, 2013 --- 6:30 p.m.

This week's dense fog isn't just affecting the airlines. The pilots who transport victims of bad crashes also can't take off.

From thunderstorms in the summer to ice in the clouds during winter, a number of conditions make it nearly impossible for those on board the UW's Med Flight to navigate where they're going.

"For visual flight rules, you need about 1,000 ft. of ceiling, and about three miles of visibility to go out there and fly under visual rules," said Dr. Ryan Wubben, who's been at the UW Hospital for 10 years. He's also a pilot, overseeing the Med Flight's daily operations.

"Sometimes it's the level of care that we are bringing with a nurse and a physician on board that we're bringing to the table. Sometimes the clock is ticking," Dr. Wubben said.

The helicopter flies anywhere from three to seven times a day, responding to medical emergencies, car crashes, and transporting critical patients. But because of the dense fog all day, the pilots and mechanics are instead catching up on training and doing routine maintenance.

"That does weigh on our minds," Dr. Wubben said. "That is one of the limitations of the weather this year, is that our ability to fly to a scene is curtailed. The flip side of that is that we're able to go out in a ground ambulance."

A fatal accident five years ago also plays a big role in those safety precautions. In May of 2008, Med Flight disappeared on its way back to the UW Hospital from Lacrosse in conditions similar to Wednesday's. After a 12 hour ground search, fire, police and EMS discovered it had flown into a ridge. All three people inside were killed.

"This is an occupation that has risks," he said. "And sometimes for people maybe those risks are abstract until something bad like that happens to you."

The FAA determines the weather paremeters for all types of aviation. Since Med Flight's incident, those paremeters haven't changed. But Dr. Wubben says people's attitudes have, and pilots are now given night vision goggles to help them see.

"We do everything with that thought of safety in mind because if you're not on your game and you're not doing things for the right reasons, disaster could strike again," Dr. Wubben said.

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