UK HEMS charity Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance (DSAA) has heralded the arrival of its new AW169 helicopter, saying the delivery marks a new era for patients. The medically configured helicopter became the first AW169 to enter air ambulance operational service in the UK on 12 June, said DSAA.
The Dorset and Somerset craft may have been the first AW169 to go ‘live’, but it’s not the only example that Specialist Aviation Services (SAS) has brought in for service with air ambulance charities in England – Kent, Surrey & Sussex Air Ambulance (KSSAA), Essex & Herts Air Ambulance Trust (EHAAT) and Lincs & Notts Air Ambulance (LNAA) are also benefitting from the model’s enhanced capabilities. DSAA highlighted the machine’s advanced avionics, good turn of speed and enhanced endurance, meaning pilots can fly further, for longer, without needing to refuel. Among the other benefits of the model highlighted by SAS is the APU (auxiliary power unit) mode, which provides on-scene power while the helicopter is on the ground without rotors turning.
As the operator, SAS has trained its pilots, while the charities’ doctors and paramedics have also undertaken extensive ‘conversion’ training to ensure their skills and expertise can be transferred seamlessly to working with the new aircraft, noted KSSAA.
The machines have all been given medical fit-outs at SAS’s base at Gloucester Airport. The firm described the interior solution as ‘highly innovative’, adding that it went through a ‘lengthy certification process’.
SAS stated: “The aircraft are equipped with individually customised and fully adaptable medical interior layouts all under the same STC, with each customer benefitting from a spacious, bright cabin, easy loading and all-round patient access.”
Regarding the work done to obtain the STC, Henk Schaeken, SAS managing director, explained: “The regulation on carriage of oxygen is being interpreted more strictly than in the past and proved to be a challenge as we wanted to continue to use the bottles and regulators currently in use in the National Health Service system, and integrated in the logistics system of the air ambulances, to avoid having to go to special aviation-approved bottles as used on some of the competing interiors and the complications that would bring to the operation.” He added: “The requirement to have an attendant at the head of the patient during all phases of flight, i.e. also during take-off and landing, also involved a considerable certification effort.”
Our new helicopter is undoubtedly much faster; and flying at speeds of up to 190 mph, we are already reducing our flying times to the scene
DSAA said the medical equipment on its new craft, tail number G-DSAA, will be similar to the kit that was carried on the previous aircraft, G-DORS, an EC135 T2+ that was operated by Babcock. However, a more spacious cabin will afford the critical care team better access to patients – a significant benefit if a patient needs further intervention or treatment en route to hospital, said DSAA, adding: “The new helicopters will provide many enhanced benefits to patient care, allowing medical crews 360-degree unobstructed access to their patients, greatly increasing the specialist critical care that can be delivered in flight and positively impacting upon a patient’s chance of survival and recovery. These outstanding characteristics, superior capabilities and first-class safety standards will ensure unprecedented levels of mission effectiveness and provide an enhanced life-saving service for patients.”
KSSAA said that its operational team completely redesigned the medical kit bags used by crews to be perfectly compatible for use with the new aircraft. All of the medical kit was integrated into six response bags that fit into specific areas of the AW169. This allows more patient intervention in flight, said the charity, as well as ensuring faster and more instinctive use at the scene.
Another string to the new helicopters’ bow is their suitability for night flight. Bill Sivewright, DSAA CEO, said recently: “The AW169’s night flying capabilities mean that we can now move forward into providing full night HEMS missions. Our team will have the ability to fly directly to the patient without the need of any fixed or pre-established lighting, which is a significant advantage. We are now looking forward to completing night HEMS training and subsequently operating the new aircraft for 19 hours a day.”
EHAAT is also exploring its options for night flights. Its AW169 is being joined by a matching NVIS-capable MD902 Explorer, also completed by SAS. The pair will replace the charity’s two older helicopters and will enable it to evaluate the possibility of providing a 24/7 service, said SAS.
Discussing the adaptations for flying at night, Schaeken of SAS commented: “The interior STC ran in parallel with our nose-mounted Trakka searchlight STC, improving visibility at night when landing based on our experience with the MD902 with a searchlight in a similar position, rather than the traditional side-mounted lights, and the NVIS STC which certified the white phosphor NVGs we use on the MD902s for the AW169.”
Another string to the new helicopters’ bow is their suitability for night flight
In an article published on 25 July, LNAA said its new AW169 was already exceeding expectations of reduced flight times, increased space and greater range. The service said: “After launching our brand new, state-of-the-art helicopter to the media on 13 June, it was ready to become operational two days later following essential crew training. Within just three minutes of being on-line, the first call came in. Time was a vital factor in this first mission, and our crew was able to transport a critically ill man suffering from a cardiac arrest from Spalding to the Lincoln Heart Centre in just 10 minutes. When faced with a cardiac arrest, every single minute matters and the speed at which we get our patients to specialist help really can make the difference between life and death.
Over the last month, our helicopter was dispatched to 64 missions across Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire. Ten (16 per cent) of these involved children or teenagers, including a teenager who suffered serious head and chest injuries in a karting accident, and a young boy who suffered a back injury at school. During all of these missions, our crew was able to get to these children sooner because of the speed of the AW169, allowing our medical teams to deliver advanced pain relief and specialist medical interventions to these young and vulnerable patients much quicker.”
LNAA paramedic Roger Linnell noted: “Our new helicopter gives us new options with regards to patient care that we have never had before. One of the major benefits is 360-degree access to the patient, meaning that we can perform life-saving procedures such as a thoracostomy – used to inflate a collapsed lung or drain fluid from a lung – while in flight. This is something that we would never have been able to do before.”
Tim Taylor, LNAA pilot, added: “Our new helicopter is undoubtedly much faster; and flying at speeds of up to 190 mph, we are already reducing our flying times to the scene. I don’t think the crew could quite believe it on our second ever mission when we went from our base at RAF Waddington to Mablethorpe on the east coast in just 12 minutes! Granted we had a tail wind, but this shaved five minutes off our previous flight time.”
a more spacious cabin will afford the critical care team better access to patients – a significant benefit if a patient needs further intervention or treatment en route to hospital
Speaking of the benefit of the APU mode, Linnell said: “As we look towards the winter months, we also have the added benefit of having heat and light inside the helicopter whilst on the ground, meaning that we can treat patients in a warm and dry environment while we stabilise them ready for transportation to hospital. All of this will help to give our patients the very best chance of survival possible from some of the most serious and life-threatening injuries and illnesses.”
Worth the wait
DSAA said its new helicopter’s arrival was the culmination of years of planning and development. The charity placed an order for the machine with manufacturer Leonardo, then known as AgustaWestland, back in July 2014, at which time it was expected to begin carrying patients by 2016. KSSAA also selected the AW169 in July 2014, and had announced the craft would enter service in Autumn 2015.
The AW169 had to undergo ‘intense scrutiny’ by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), said Sivewright, adding: “This is why it has taken a little longer than we had hoped for the aircraft to become operational, however it has certainly been worth the wait and we are delighted to now have clearance to fly.”
As for the future, SAS is already working on preparing three further AW169s for delivery by April 2018 (back-up aircraft for SAS, KSSAA and The Children’s Air Ambulance) – and it has signed orders for more deliveries in 2018.