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Nashville Scene Presidential Priority?

Did Air Force One delay the flight of a heart-attack victim?

By Phil Williams

OCTOBER 19, 1998:  Since Bill Clinton and Al Gore took office in 1992, Air Force One and its less spacious cousin, Air Force Two, have repeatedly touched down at Nashville's Berry Field. Thousands of Nashvillians have stared with awe as the planes--striped in blue and white, and emblazoned with the words, "UNITED STATES OF AMERICA"--have flown across midstate skies.

Considering Gore's presidential ambitions in the year 2000, one can imagine a steady stream of presidential flights pouring into Nashville in the future. But, just like the motorcades that follow presidential limousines and frustrate motorists, presidential flights can also complicate air traffic. In 1993, if you recall, two runways in Los Angeles were shut down and some commercial flights reportedly delayed while a Beverly Hills stylist gave Bill Clinton a $200 haircut on board Air Force One.

And, in one case this summer, right here in Nashville, the president's convenience may have taken priority over a heart-attack patient's medical needs.

It happened about 11 a.m. on June 22, as an Air Force jetliner entered the airspace surrounding Nashville International Airport. When the aircraft identified itself with the radio call sign "Air Force One," it carried an unmistakable meaning for air-traffic controllers: the president of the United States of America was on board.

Bill and Hillary Clinton were headed here for Gore's annual Family Reunion Conference. And, as usual, the president was on a tightly orchestrated schedule.

While Air Force One descended from the north, a Lifeforce medical evacuation helicopter was also en route from Livingston, just northeast of Cookeville. When the pilot identified himself as "LIFEGUARD," it was a term equally well understood by controllers: An air ambulance was on an emergency medical mission.

On board the Lifeforce chopper, William J. Powell, a retired Baptist minister from Monterey, was fighting for his life. While Powell's family will not discuss his medical situation or allow the hospitals to go into any detail, a Lifeforce spokeswoman confirms that the 70-year-old father and grandfather had suffered a major heart attack and was in critical need of the specialized attention of a heart trauma center, like the one at St. Thomas Hospital.

As they had done many times, air-traffic controllers gave the veteran Lifeforce pilot clearance to fly a straight line, directly to St. Thomas. All other aircraft were to be routed around the LIFEGUARD flight.

But with Lifeforce just minutes from its destination, pilot Clyde Craig says, an air-traffic controller suddenly ordered him to turn away from the hospital. No discussion. No explanation. Just turn.

At moments like that, arguments are verboten. A pilot knows any hesitation can result in a midair collision with an aircraft that controllers have spotted, but that he cannot see.

So Craig did exactly as he was ordered. Then he learned he was being diverted to make way for Air Force One. Flying away from the hospital at 132 mph, the Lifeforce pilot says he waited for permission to turn back toward St. Thomas where his heart-attack patient desperately needed to be. Hearing nothing, the agitated pilot finally radioed, "LIFEGUARD, still standing by!"

Only then, Craig says, did the air-traffic controller clear him to return to his heading.

At Nashville International, Air Force One delivered Bill Clinton to the ground and he was on his way to his speaking engagement a few minutes ahead of schedule. There, he delivered an emotional plea for a Patients' Bill of Rights.

But the Lifeforce pilot estimates the diversion delayed his elderly patient's trip to St. Thomas by 10 to 15 minutes. Two days later, Bill Powell died.

A spokeswoman for Chattanooga's Erlanger Medical Center, which operates the medical evacuation helicopter, suggests Powell's prognosis probably would not have been any different if the Lifeforce crew had been able to get him to the hospital 15 minutes earlier--a conclusion echoed by Powell's son. But what if it had been another patient?

"With a major trauma patient, 15 minutes could definitely make a difference," says Dr. Sullivan Smith, medical director for the Tennessee Department of Health.

Inside the darkened radar room at Nashville's air-traffic control tower, rank-and-file controllers themselves were livid about what had happened. The decision to turn the Lifeforce chopper had not been their own. Instead, the order had come from one of their supervisors.

"We control every airplane as if our own family is on board," says Denzil Britt, local president for the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration's own policies suggest that, given a choice between Bill Clinton's schedule and Bill Powell's heart attack, the president should have been the one diverted--even if it cost him a few minutes on his schedule.

Under the heading "Operational Priorities," the official Controllers' Handbook says controllers must give priority first to "aircraft in distress," followed next by emergency ambulance flights that identify themselves using the radio call sign, "LIFEGUARD." Next on the list of priorities are "search-and-rescue" aircraft. Only then, fourth on the list of priorities, are controllers instructed to "expedite presidential aircraft."

"The controller informed the supervisor that the air ambulance had priority over Air Force One," Britt says. "The supervisor ignored the controller and ordered him to 'turn the LIFEGUARD north or south' to ensure that it not get any closer than five miles to the president's plane."

Officially, FAA management does not admit that any mistakes were made. Even though both the pilot and the controllers agree the decision cost the LIFEGUARD valuable time, a statement released by the FAA claims "the helicopter was not delayed because of Air Force One." It insists controllers simply turned the LIFEGUARD chopper to "maintain separation" between it and Air Force One.

That's rubbish, says the controllers' union. They say the Lifeforce chopper was flying at an altitude at least 1,000 feet higher than Air Force One--a standard the FAA normally employs in keeping aircraft a safe distance apart, even when the president's plane is involved. The real problem, the local union president says, was "an incompetent supervisor."

"A mistake of this nature," Britt adds, "could have resulted in the death of any patient being transported in an air ambulance that is unnecessarily delayed in flight."

During his final two days, hooked up to heart monitors, Powell shared a story with his family about that helicopter ride. Lying there on the stretcher, he said he looked out the window and saw an aircraft he'd heard about all his life, Air Force One. In fact, Lifeforce pilot Clyde Craig says, as the flight crew struggled to keep their patient calm during the delay, they drew his attention outside, saying "Look out the door. There's Air Force One. That's our president on board."

That would become one of Bill Powell's last memories.

Craig says that after questions were raised about the decision to divert his helicopter, an FAA official called him from the Nashville tower to apologize for the diversion. For him, the apology was being made to the wrong person.

Says Craig, "I said they needed to apologize to the family, not me."


Phil Williams is the investigative reporter for NewsChannel 5.


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