The Journal of the Friends of Sywell Aerodrome
No. 7 Winter 2001
Day in the Life of an Air Ambulance Pilot
courtesy Sloane Helicopters
There is no such thing as a 'typical day' in the life of an Air Ambulance crew. Since working on the air ambulance for Thames Valley and Chiltern at its current base at White Waltham Airfield in Berkshire, no two days are quite the same.
We are lucky enough to be flying a new A109E Power built solely as an Air Ambulance helicopter, and not a VIP conversion, provided by Sloane Helicopters here at Sywell. We operate with one pilot and two paramedics from 08.00 to 18.00 daily (less Tuesdays and Wednesdays at present due to lack of funding). We cover the counties of Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Northamptonshire, which contains some 2.4 million people in 3,200 square miles. Due to the A109s unrivalled speed the helicopter is never more than 20 minutes airborne time from any point of this large operational area.
Upon arrival at the base in the morning the aircraft is the first priority; a good check making sure all the levels are well topped up, safety and security are all in order, windows cleaned, and whilst the coffee is put on, the paramedics check and load all the medical equipment they will require for the day ahead. The daily dose of paperwork follows; Met Notams, aircraft logbook, weight and balance calculations and any details from the previous shift faxed to various headquarters, then a quick brief between the team before declaring ourselves on standby to Ambulance Control by 08.30 am - then it's wait for whatever the day has in store for us, but we do not usually have long to wait...
The "bat-phone" rings, control asking if we are ready as they have a serious RTA (road traffic accident), looks like the coffee will have to wait. Tom takes the details as I sprint to the aircraft and start it. Two minutes later we are airborne to the M4 between Junctions 7 and 8/9, no need for Mark to fire up the Global Positioning System as it is only a couple of minutes from base. However, a quick radio call to Heathrow is required, as we are moving into their airspace. Apparently a motorcyclist has hit the central reservation and is seriously injured.
Tom calls control to co-ordinate with the Police to close the motorway to allow us to land on the carriageway close to the scene. As we arrive overhead a road ambulance arrives, the Police close the motorway and we land. Mark and Tom disembark and then I shut down. A passing doctor is assisting the paramedics who are busy assessing and treating the patient who is fortunately the sole casualty. Because of his injuries we will transport him (four minutes by air instead of a possible 20 by road).
Mark gives me the details and I advise control of the patient's status and our ETA at the hospital. I then prepare the aircraft for a serious casualty, turning the paramedics front seat around to allow him to manage the patients' airway and preparing the stretcher ready to accept the patient strapped to a spinal board.
By this time the casualty is ready to travel, we load him and I prepare for take-off. In the back Mark is giving the patient oxygen from the onboard supply while Tom wires him up to the various monitors. We lift from the motorway, again talking to Heathrow for clearance to route direct to Wexham Park Hospital. As we arrive we can see the medical team waiting by the helipad. We land and unload the casualty in quick time and as he is wheeled into the Accident and Emergency Resuscitation Room, Mark briefs the A&E consultant. I glance at my watch, only some 24 minutes since we received the call. At this point there are probably eight highly skilled members of the medical profession poised to go into action. So it's back for the coffee, which by now is cold!
It is fair to say we average three to four tasks per day, with the most being 14 in one 10 hours shift. The prime responsibility from the pilot's point of view is to deliver medical aid as swiftly and safely as possible to any call deemed worthy of our response by ambulance control, maybe assist at the scene with a little fetching and carrying for the paramedics, then planning our route to the receiving hospital once the patient's injuries have been assessed. Flying en-route I could expect assistance from the paramedic crew with navigation and invaluable amounts of local knowledge. Post incident it's just me, a map and a trusty GPS.
Most of the incidents we attend are road traffic accidents, but there are plenty of other tasks such as cardiac arrest and collapses where speed is of the highest priority. We have been to a few incidents where the injuries have been minor but due to the difficult location, the time taken for a four-wheel vehicle to attend would have made the condition of the patient worse, thereby justifying use of the air ambulance. We have many hospitals available to us; again the joy of the air ambulance is we can be a little selective as to where we choose to take our patients - burns can go to Stoke Mandeville, trauma to John Radcliffe, Oxford, plastics can go to Wexham Park in Slough. Again this can save valuable time and comfort to a patient be being delivered to the centre of excellence relevant to their condition rather than a double move being assessed by the nearest general hospital.
The job has huge attractions - the aircraft is immensely fast and capable, the crew are a tight-knit group, helping each other at every stage of a task. It is sometimes easy to forget that our intervention actually saves lives - every day; a humbling thought for us and a fantastic asset for the people of the Thames Valley.
Please note that the Thames Valley Air Ambulance is entirely funded from voluntary donations.
Postscript, May 2012: Northamptonshire is now covered by the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance who operate an A109E; the Thames Valley Air Ambulance became the Thames Valley & Chiltern Air Ambulance and now operate an EC.135.