Interview - Dave Kelly, pilot for Essex & Herts Air Ambulance
Co-Pilot Essex & Herts Air Ambulance, based at North Weald Airbase and flying the charity’s AgustaWestland 169
How did you get started in aviation?
At the age of 18, I joined the Navy for 10 years as an apprentice aircraft engineer for helicopters. After that, I worked as an engineer on the Search and Rescue aircraft in Wales. I then worked for a defence company for four years whilst saving to do my flying training in Florida. Typically, when you pass, you get a job in the North Sea where you build your hours up flying workers to and from oil rigs, or similar sort of jobs. However, at the time when I finished my training, the market had just taken a massive crash, so there were limited jobs for pilots. Fortunately, I was able to go back to my old job for a year before this job became available.
What are the main challenges you face on a daily basis?
Choosing the landing site can be quite difficult, but you’re never in a situation where you can’t find anywhere at all. There will always be somewhere, but you just might not get as close to the incident as you would like. Crowd control can also be a bit of a challenge. Everywhere we land, we attract a crowd due to the noise of the aircraft. Meeting people is one of the best parts of the job, but also very energy zapping. You have to have eyes in the back of your head as you need to make sure there’s no one hanging off the back of the helicopter! But it’s great to engage with the public.
Do you get involved with the missions?
We run kit to and from the scene and if we are at the scene we can help, but obviously we are limited to what we can do. We know the bags inside out, so we can hand the team what they need. Most of the time, one of us has to stay with the aircraft, however, there are occasions when we can leave it. For example, today we landed in a school. They are brilliant places to land as they are secured with a big fence and the only people there are children and teachers, who are pretty responsible. So we can safely leave the aircraft and both go to scene.
In 2016, EHAAT introduced the Co-Pilot role. What difference do you think this has made?
I think the big change is that it frees capacity up for the Paramedic and Doctor. So rather than the Paramedic trying to focus on the navigation and airspace, they can focus on the incident and get into the right frame of mind. They can start to discuss the drugs and kit they might need. Also, having an extra person on scene is always handy if they know your kit. They can bring a bystander in to help, but if so, then they must then spend time directing them on where to find equipment and drugs, and it can take a lot longer than using someone who is familiar with the bags.
There is a lot to flying a helicopter.
When it is working perfectly it’s a dream to fly, but there is a lot that can go wrong
When it is working perfectly it’s a dream to fly, but there is a lot that can go wrong. To have that other person who’s trained the same as you are means your training kicks in together. Nick (the Captain) and I did our training together, which consisted of 40 hours in the simulator and one hour in the aircraft. If we have to switch into emergency mode, we both know what the other has to do and how we each like to work. I know how he likes the checklist gone through and he knows in what way to respond to help me. Hopefully we don’t ever need to use our emergency training, but it’s nice to have the reassurance that you’re with someone you’re used to.
What do you do when you’re not working?
As Pilots, we work four days on, four days off. I rent a place in Bishop’s Stortford for when I’m working and then for my four days off, I fly back to my wife and son in Northern Ireland. It’s nice because at the end of the four days on, you feel quite tired. But at the end of your four days off, you’re feeling quite excited to get back to work.
If I’m off in the middle of the week, it’s nice to take my six year old to and from school. I also play cricket and do a bit of mountain biking. With a six year old your social life disappears and you become his personal taxi and playmate. I’m not sure if he’s that into flying or not but he did a drawing of the helicopter once and it was perfect! I fly a little R44 – a four-seater helicopter – that I took him and my wife up in. I was doing some training on auto rotations, which is a controlled way of landing safely if the engine fails. It can be quite exciting as you’re coming down quite fast, so I turned round to look at his reaction, but he was more interested in playing with his Lego. So possibly I’ve spoiled him by taking him flying too young, but who knows.
What’s next in your career?
I plan to stay here. Obviously as Co-Pilots we want to be sitting where the Captains do, so at the moment I’m trying to drag as much as I can out of them to progress my learning. Nick and Jim together have over 10,000 hours flying experience, so they are great to learn from. Jobs for Pilots are based on the hours you have completed. Our CVs generally have hours completed at the top and that’s how others initially decide if you’re right for the position. When you work in the North Sea, you gain about 800 hours a year, but as a HEMS Pilot, we probably do about 100. A normal day flying in the North Sea is about five hours, whereas a busy day for us is 90 minutes as we’re doing 10-minute flights and then spending time on scene. You’re not getting the quantity of hours as you would elsewhere, but arguably they’re of greater quality. You have to do a lot of work during the short flight – where to land and what to watch out for. We don’t know where we are going to land until we are right overhead.