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Meet the Team- Pilot Dave

Tuesday 4th June 2019

What helicopter do you fly, how fast can it fly and how long can it stay in the air?

I am a Babcock pilot and fly an Airbus H135 helicopter for the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance. We have a cruising speed of around 125 knots (equivalent to 145 mph).   With full tanks, the helicopter could fly for around 2 hours 30 minutes.   However, we have to leave enough weight carrying capacity to take a patient, so we are usually limited to around 1 hour forty minutes.

How quickly can you go from being called out to being with a patient, say, 50 miles away?

We usually say it takes us 4 minutes from receiving a call to be airborne and we can be anywhere in Hampshire in 15 minutes and anywhere on the Isle of Wight in 20.

How much does it cost to operate the helicopter each year and what does a typical mission cost?

Last year, Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance responded to 1,429 emergencies across the south. It costs £15,000 a day to keep our life-saving service operational.

Generally speaking, what circumstances is a helicopter used in preference to a road ambulance?

Our Air Ambulance and Critical Care Team Vehicles are crewed by Specialist Critical Care Paramedics, HEMS Doctors and highly skilled pilots, essentially bringing the hospital to the patient. The Air Ambulance can also be used when the patient is in a location that is inaccessible by road (for example, in the middle of the New Forest).

What type of accident are you most called out to?

Last year, our biggest rate of call-outs was to road traffic collisions (35.2%).
Cardiac/Collapse 33.8%
Transfers 12.2%
Sports/Falls 9.4%
Stabbings 4.2%
Horse Riding 3.8%
Industrial Injury 1.4%

What additional training does a helicopter pilot require over one doing a commercial job?

Babcock pilots selected for HEMS must already have a certain amount of experience, often (but by no means always) as pilots in the armed forces. Once selected, they are required to fly at least ten HEMS shifts as on the job training with a line training captain.   They must also learn the complex regulations associated with HEMS.

What was your previous job – are you ex-services?

I spent 22 years in the Army, 18 of which were as a pilot.

Why did you choose to be an Air Ambulance pilot – what attracted you to the job?

Flying as an Air Ambulance pilot is the most satisfying job I can think of. I am able to put the experience gained on military operations to use helping patients.   I also love the amazing work ethics and sense of humour of our medical crew members.   Every day is different with a good mix of hard work and fun!

What are the main flying challenges associated with being an Air Ambulance pilot?

Apart from the weather, which is a challenge for all pilots, the biggest challenge is ensuring we operate the aircraft as safely as possible, whilst finding the most appropriate way to help the patient. I am often told that I have an exciting job; my view is that it is the pilot’s job to make sure it isn’t exciting!

What are the things that concern you most as you are choosing a landing spot?

Safety is by far the most important factor. With that in mind, we are looking for a landing site that is reasonably close to the patient, big enough for the helicopter (we need around 25 metres) and with good access to the patient. Our crews sometimes have to climb over fences to get to a patient, but it can be much more difficult to return the same way with a stretchered patient.

Under what conditions or circumstances would you refuse to fly or land your helicopter at an incident?

We would not fly if the weather is below the legal minimum (cloud base and visibility). We would normally be able to find a suitable landing site provided it is big enough and clear of people. Good advice for members of the public would be that if they see a helicopter approaching, they should move well clear and not approach the helicopter while the blades are still turning.   Sometimes we are unable to land at the most suitable landing site because there are people in the way.   We will not land if there are unacceptable risks.

Rushing to an incident, flying back with a dangerously ill or seriously injured patient, possibly a child – Prince William said his time as an Air Ambulance pilot was very stressful. How do you manage stress?

I try to get to every incident as quickly and as safely as possible. If I always stick to this, then I never have to change what I am doing regardless of the condition of the patient – I am already doing my best! This takes much of the stress out of Air Ambulance flying.   That said, there will always be certain missions that affect us more than others.   We manage this stress by talking through missions on returning to base.   Sharing any concerns or doubts about the mission with other crew members is definitely the best stress management regime and also helps us to identify any areas where we could have made improvements.

What has been your most ‘memorable’ mission and why?

From a flying perspective, it is difficult to single out a specific mission; they are all memorable in their own way. Each mission is like a puzzle to be solved, be it due to location, weather or some of the many other difficulties we often have to overcome. Regarding the patients we meet, missions are more memorable to me when there is a sad story behind the incident.   It is really important for us to debrief these tasks as a crew to ensure that something memorable does not become a problem over time.

Between call-outs, do you sit around like pilots in a Battle of Britain mess? What do you do – check the aircraft, play chess, study the weather forecast?

There is a great deal of administration to be done in support of our HEMS operations. Each day starts with a briefing on the weather and any other factors that will affect our day or night. A lot of the day is taken up with paperwork, checking and servicing the aircraft, checking the fuel quality or talking through previous missions, but we usually find time to include a bit of “down time”.   We have a comfortable crew room (with, it seems, a never-ending supply of tea and coffee) and we are also able to use our own gym on base, if we feel like being a bit more active.  In amongst all of that, we usually fly between 2 and 3 missions per day.

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