The worlds of military test flying and air ambulance operations are very different, so what attracted you to the latter?
With 17 years under my belt as a helicopter pilot with the British Army, which included flying the AH-64D Apache, six years at Boscombe Down where I spent a year on the Test Pilot course, three years on Rotary Wing Test and Evaluation Squadron, and finishing with two years as an instructor at the Empire Test Pilot’s School, it has made me able to think on my feet and deal with the unexpected.
One of the challenges with air ambulance flying is its reactive nature. What’s attractive about Wiltshire Air Ambulance is that as an operator we’re able to evolve and change our operating procedures in response to changing circumstances. We’re a digital-leaning organisation and if you pick the right team you can adapt very early on.
I’ve always had goals in my life: I studied engineering at university before joining the British Army and I was on the second CTT (Conversion To Type) course on the AH-64 Apache attack helicopter in the UK. Then I joined 664 Squadron Army Air Corps and developed and delivered the initial operating capability, which also included support to Special Forces and flying combat missions in Afghanistan, but I realised this kind of flying wasn’t going to last forever and of course, things move on.
I’d aways wanted to be a test pilot, and I had enjoyed the challenges of instructing when I was an Electronic Warfare instructor as part of AMTAT (Air Manoeuvre Training and Advisory Team), teaching new AH-64D pilots how to fight the aircraft, but what I enjoyed the most was reactive, high-readiness taskings – hence why air ambulance flying was my next challenge.
How has your experience as a military helicopter pilot informed the way you work today as an air ambulance pilot?
Air ambulance flying is reactive by nature – particularly getting the aircraft into and out of landing sites. Night operations are still the most challenging element we have to deal with.
On joining Wiltshire Air Ambulance in January 2015, it quickly became apparent that I really enjoyed supporting the medical team. This had been an area of interest for me for some time, but I didn’t know much about it at first. The medical side of the job is fascinating; we have A&E consultants working with us, including some of the UK's leading pre-hospital doctors.
The medical side of the job is fascinating; we have A&E consultants working with us, including some of the UK's leading pre-hospital doctors
There are three different operating scenarios for the air ambulance: HEMS operating site (i.e. out in the community), HEMS base, and hospital landing site. Each is allowed to have different levels of risk when operating into and out of them.
Some of the HEMS operating site locations around our main area in Wiltshire can tax your flying skills. Flying at night still has its challenges even though our pilots wear Night Vision Goggles (NVG). I’m the NVG instructor for Wiltshire Air Ambulance and I teach the whole team how to fly and operate on NVGs.
The locale of Bradford-on-Avon in Wiltshire is the most interesting, and probably the most challenging landing site at night, set on a hillside and with no lighting in the surrounding terrain. On a plateau to the north of Devizes is the prehistoric Avebury stone circle where it’s always pitch black at night.
There are no visual demarcations whatsoever that can give relative scale to objects and there can be risks from optical illusions that mislead you about your actual height above ground level (AGL). For example, your mind is telling you that what you think is a tree on the ground below could be 30-40ft tall, but what your eyes are not computing is that this ‘tree’ is actually a shrub-like bush, which in reality is probably only 3 or 4ft high at most, which could cause you to seriously misjudge your actual height AGL.
Can you describe a typical day-in-the life of Matt Wilcock, air ambulance pilot?
Today I’m the line pilot. I get in for 0800 hrs when it’s daylight. The first half an hour is spent getting the aircraft on line and getting the ops room live. I go out and do Check A on the aircraft and the paramedics load up their kit. I do a final check, and then deal with all the associated paperwork. Then comes the morning briefing – Meteorological office (MET), air traffic, Notice to Air Missions (NOTAMs), medical issues, crewing issues, any training we might be doing, and a simulated ‘emergency of the day’. We talk it all through together and we’re finished with briefing by 0900 hrs at the latest. We then resort to our daily taskings until we complete our shift at 1800 hrs.
As a Form 4 holder, there’s always a lot of other things for me to do – rostering, maintenance issues, personnel, regulatory structure, and all the checks that come with it.
As night shift pilot I’d be on duty from 18:00 hrs to 03:00 hrs. Once it gets dark, we may be asked to cover into Hampshire and Dorset in the south, Somerset and Devon, and up into Gloucestershire, north Wiltshire and across into Bristol. Between 02:00 hrs to 03:00 hrs we may be the only air ambulance asset on call in this region. This hour is the nervous part for us at the end of a long night, because we may be called to a job out of area and then we may not return to our base again until, say, 06:00 hrs.
You’ve flown some 30 different types of rotary- and fixed-wing aircraft so far in your career. Which ones stand out and why?
I’ve flown everything from the single-engine Schweizer 300 light utility helicopter, to the swing-wing Panavia Tornado GR4 all-weather attack aircraft. The Eurocopter Tiger has been the most impressive by far – I flew the French HAP (or multi-purpose combat helicopter) version. Its handling and agility are truly awesome. Even the baseline aircraft is phenomenal. The Chinook is great – a thundering workhorse with virtually unlimited power. Systems-wise, the AH-64 Apache is the best of all, but here the weakest link is the pilot! These days, it’s less to do with the flying quality of an aircraft and more about managing the human/machine interface.
I’ve flown everything from the single-engine Schweizer 300 light utility helicopter, to the swing-wing Panavia Tornado
The reactive nature of the job means you that you’ll never know what the next sortie might be. Is there one particular mission you’ve flown that stands out from the others, and why?
My worst experience as an air ambulance pilot was very soon after I joined Wiltshire Air Ambulance. We were called out to a road traffic accident in February 2015 on the edge of the city of Bath at the bottom of a steep hill that involved an out-of-control 32-ton tipper truck, pedestrians and a taxi. I’ve not seen such devastation outside a war zone. The truck had wiped out vehicles and landed on top of a taxi.
At another time, we attended a cardiac arrest in Swindon and I landed in a restaurant car park at a shopping centre. The owner of the Italian restaurant came out and offered me a cup of tea as I waited with the helicopter while the medics were assessing and treating the patient, who was eventually transferred to hospital by road ambulance. It was the end of our shift and the crew were all tired and hungry. The restaurant owner cooked us a pizza each, which the crew in the rear compartment ate during our return flight to base.