Cornwall Air Ambulance has entered its two MD902 Explorer helicopters into service, after signing a contract late last year to transfer its provision to Medical Aviation Services, a subsidiary of Specialist Aviation Services.
The county will now have two helicopters available for the first time, providing on-site backup for use when one aircraft is offline for routine or unscheduled maintenance.
The Explorers will enhance the service the charity can offer its patients, and the model is already used by the London, Lincolnshire and Nottinghamshire, Essex and Hertfordshire and the Yorkshire air ambulance services.
“Having two helicopters is not costing us double, due to a very competitive tender process and a creative contract from the new operators,” says CAA PR and events officer Tom Matthews. “We will be flying more missions, and so we need the people and businesses of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly – as well as the millions who visit every year – to maintain their support.
“Up to now we have had to wait for a standby aircraft to be delivered from elsewhere in the UK. In 2013 there were 13 occasions when we were unable to attend an incident because of unscheduled maintenance. Having the dedicated backup aircraft based in Cornwall, rather than 300 miles away, will help solve that problem.
“We won't be operating both helicopters at once initially. The helicopters will take it in turns in daily service so both are used on a regular basis.”
Another significant improvement to the service is the ability for the Explorers to fly in the dark. Until a recent change in aviation law, no air ambulance service in the UK has been able to do so. Cornwall flies around 12 hours a day in the summer but often fewer than 10 hours a day in the winter.
“These new aircraft will be capable of flying in the hours of darkness, meaning we will be able to extend our operating hours. Initially we hope to operate 12 hours a day throughout the year, starting in early 2015,” explains Matthews.
It is anticipated that this increase in operating hours will allow the air ambulance to fly an extra 50 missions a year. Both helicopters will be fully equipped for night flight, with specially adapted cockpits, additional safety features, and a powerful searchlight, equivalent to 30 million candles. Pilots and paramedics will wear Night Vision Imaging System (NVIS) goggles that will allow them to see in almost total darkness.
The MD902s will also have additional weight capacity, meaning they will be able to carry more specialist medical equipment, additional medical personnel such as volunteer critical care doctors, or additional fuel to fly further to specialist treatment centres such as the Bristol Children's Hospital.