When we attend an incident where we treat a patient and fly them to hospital we actually undertake 3 ‘sectors’, a sector being a flight between the moment we take off the ground through to when we land again. The 3 sectors would be: From the airbase to the incident scene, from the incident scene to the hospital, and finally from hospital back to the airbase.

Each sector is almost always preceded by the pilot starting the helicopter up and unlike starting a car where you no doubt just jump in and turn the key, we follow a defined process which involves at least two people and helps ensure our safety, even before we get off the ground.

Prior to getting in the aircraft the pilot will undertake a walk around of the aircraft which involves looking to confirm everything is as it should be and nothing is out of place, such as a loose panel catch or perhaps some debris that has blown onto the aircraft.  The pilot will do this even if they have only recently landed after a flight and only once the walk around has been completed will the pilot get on-board the helicopter.

Once sat inside the helicopter the pilot will turn on the aircraft electrics and will confirm that all the warning lights are functioning and will watch the flight computers cycle through their self-tests and confirm that no errors are reported.

Both our helicopters have two engines and they are identified, rather unimaginatively, as Engine 1 and Engine 2. We start each engine separately with Engine 1 being started first on dates in the month which are an odd number and Engine 2 on dates which are an even number. Starting the engines in this manner means that each engine has a fairly even frequency of being started first and thus prevents any one engine from always undertaking the extra strain which is incurred by being the first engine to start the rotor blades turning.

As well as the pilot a second member of the crew is required to monitor the engine start up process and they position themselves outside the aircraft where the can see the pilot as well as the engine air intake vents and the exhaust. The pilot will confirm which engine they are going to start by holding up 1 finger for engine 1 and 2 fingers for engine 2 and the person observing outside will confirm to the pilot they are monitoring the correct engine by repeating the same hand signal.

The pilot will commence the engine start and monitors the electronic engine gauges whilst also keeping one eye on the crewmember outside the aircraft. They watch the air intakes and exhausts and indicate any abnormally to the pilot through predefined hand signals. Only once the first engine has started OK will the second engine start commence.

Once both engines have been started the crewmember outside the helicopter will undertake a second walk around of the aircraft just to ensure that everything remains as it should and that the vibrations from starting the engines and rotor blades have not caused any of the panel catches to become loose. In reality they are so well designed they never do however we always check as part of the final walk around.

The picture above was taken during our daily engine wash procedure and the pilot is being assisted with the start-up by our engineer. If you are particularly observant you may have noticed that due to the need to connect an external hose to the engine to undertake the wash procedure the engineer does not fully close one of the panel catches. It's the one just to the left and below of the engineers hand.

The process of starting both engines and getting the aircraft ready for departure takes about two minutes and whilst we do this as quickly as we can so as to enable to reach our patients as soon as possible, at every step of the process we have built in safety checks and even double checks to help ensure our service is delivered safely.

In 2017 it cost £6.4 million to keep Devon's Air Ambulances flying. Find out more about our operations by reading through more articles by Nigel and the team in our blog