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How did we choose our new helicopter?

What made you choose the car you drive?  You probably weighed up all of the options and made an informed decision?  That’s exactly what we did when deciding what make of helicopter to buy for Devon’s second owned aircraft.  We already own an EC135 in Exeter, and the leased aircraft, which the new aircraft is replacing in Autumn 2013 is also the same type.

The reasons we chose the EC135 over other options are primarily operational. These are a few of the considerations which favour the EC135 for our particular needs:

  1. Because of the nature of the incidents we are called to and the geography and topography of many of the locations we need to reach, everything from rugged coastal areas, beaches, valleys and housing estates to wooded areas and railway lines, we were looking for a small, light and fast helicopter.  The EC135 is able to land in some restricted sites (which the AW169 for example would not be able to get in to).
  2. Unlike the nature of the work that may be undertaken by a more urban based air ambulance, the vast majority of incidents the Devon Air Ambulance attends require us to land in places such as soft or ploughed fields, boggy ground such as that found on Dartmoor and Exmoor as well as soft sandy beaches that surround our two coastlines. Having a helicopter that is equipped with landing skids like the EC-135, as opposed to wheels, is viewed as essential for us to be able to offer the service to the people of Devon, as the skids, unlike wheels, are specifically designed to prevent the aircraft from sinking into such soft ground.
  3. On occasions when the aircraft does not shut down at an incident, such as when an instant departure is paramount or when the aircraft has to land in a coastal area with an incoming tide approaching, the aircrew team often have to work alongside other agencies who will assist loading the patient into the aircraft. The enclosing of the tail rotor, as on the EC-135, rather than having it exposed, is a significant safety benefit.
  4. Devon is a large, sparsely populated county so inevitably definitive medical care is often a long way away from the patient.  With the NHS setting up treatment networks, including Trauma, Burns, Cardiac and Paediatrics there is a trend towards focusing specialist services in a single treatment centre serving a large area, often regional, and our aircraft frequently have to travel significant distances to get patients to the right hospital for their needs. The EC-135 is small and light enough to be able to land close to the patient, often in gardens, on verges and driveways, meaning we can not only treat the patient quickly but also are able to rapidly load them into the aircraft and fly them quickly over long distances. The AW-169, whilst having a similar cruising speed to the EC-135, is in the next ‘class size’ up, at 4.5 tonnes compared to the EC-135 at 2.9 tonnes. We believe anything that would reduce our ability to land as close to the patient as possible would be detrimental to the service we deliver and ultimately to the people of Devon.

As well as these critical performance issues, there are also personnel, equipment and resilience reasons why we opted for another EC135.

Thanks to the incredible support of the community, Devon is the only county with two air ambulances and therefore two aircrews.  For resilience and ongoing cost-effectiveness it makes sense that both crews work with the same aircraft type and can be interchangeable.  For example, it costs a considerable amount of money to retrain a pilot so that they are able to fly a different aircraft.  We would also need to train the paramedics to work in two different aircraft environments, whereas currently all the crew can work on either of our bases according to need.

In much the same way, we have equipment which is specific to the EC135 and interchangeable between our aircraft, for example we are the only air ambulance in the country to have an incubator for conveying neonatal patients.  This is also EC-135 specific and requires a refit of the cabin floor.  Again, this can be used in both our aircraft.  Furthermore, by purchasing our aircraft outright, we have been able to work with the manufacturer to modify the EC135 to meet our specific equipment and role requirements so that we have a great many unique features.  This experience has had a direct positive impact on the service the paramedics are able to provide to the patients.

There are further resilience and cost benefits to owning two of the same aircraft for example common maintenance and engineering equipment and personnel.  Our experience of working with EC135s, both our own and those leased from Bond Air Services, has been that it is an extremely reliable machine with an excellent availability record.  This is of vital importance.

As mentioned above the EC-135 is an extremely reliable helicopter and has been flying for a number of years now. Researching the data on how much time an aircraft type is offline due to mechanical reasons was a very important factor in the charity’s decision-making process.

Our specific requirements have been rigorously worked through with the aircrew and, on this basis, the EC135 is the most suitable aircraft for our needs at this time.  There is no wholly British alternative. The three companies manufacturing aircraft used in air ambulance provision in the UK are AgustaWestland, Eurocopter and MD Helicopters.  The first two are pan-European companies with UK bases (Italy’s Finmeccanica and France’s Eurocopter/EADS respectively) and MD Helicopters is American.

The EC135 is partly manufactured in the UK.  It is only the shell and major components that are assembled in Germany. Some of the avionics and parts are made in the UK.  The shell is transported on a lorry to England where it then gets turned into an air ambulance.

Whilst we have a policy of purchasing locally, in this instance where the decision could have a significant impact on our ability to save lives, the choice had to be led by the considerations above in order to best serve the people of Devon.

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Broken Heart SMS

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