As one of the pilots who work for Devon Air Ambulance I thought it would be helpful to share some information with everyone about what progress we have made to date with our landing sites, and some of the challenges we face as pilots when flying at night.
I thought you might also be interested to learn about how our training has been going and some of the real benefits of having our new community landing sites ready to go ‘live’ – something which will really help us to save lives after dark across as many of our communities as possible.
So far, we have carried out night flying training at various sites, from those using a single column to light the landing area, to those who already have multiple lights available (such as in a sports field). Of the sites we have flown into so far, all have been far better than expected! They are easily identifiable from the air from a long distance and also have good lighting.
The importance of night training at these sites cannot be stressed highly enough. After initially teaching the basic procedures at the airport it is vital to put these skills into practice by actually landing at the community sites. It is only then that the crews really begin to appreciate how to use the night vision goggles; with these goggles, depth perception and scale takes hundreds of hours of experience to really be able to utilise their full potential. So with each trip valuable experience is being gained.
Landing at night requires the whole crew to use their goggles and we have to really trust each other in our individual roles during this critical phase of night flying. When training and when on ‘live’ jobs, the crew begin by completing a full brief of the site back at base, using all the information gained from the site survey and internet viewing sites to look at the surrounding site for other potential hazards.
At night we approach a site at approximately 1000ft carrying out height calculations and initial safety assessments. The pilot will then put the large spotlight onto the site and begin a more thorough inspection of the landing area whilst slowly descending, constantly looking at the site for any new hazards. It is safest for the helicopter to land into wind, so sometimes this may involve flying over houses close to the site. We try our hardest to avoid this but occasionally this is the only route into the site.
The majority of the time, once we have landed we will shut the aircraft down as paramedics can be busy with a patient on the ground for up to an hour delivering critical care. Then, if it is necessary, we will airlift the patient to hospital. The enormous benefit of these known, surveyed, safe community sites mean that we save vital time not having to plan where to land, meaning we can get to an emergency call quicker and more safely.
I hope you have found this update helpful in understanding the depth and breadth of the training we have been going through, as well as some of the technical issues we face as pilots flying at night and the tools we have available to us to ensure we do this in a totally safe way, for both ourselves, our patients and the wider community.