Air ambulances to the rescue

Brigadier General Paul Fry, General Officer Commanding the Irish Air Corps writes about the work of the IAC ambulance service in transporting critically-ill adults and children, neonatal transfers and victims of severe road traffic collisions, severe cardiac incidents and stroke victims.

General Paul Fry
Brigadier General Paul Fry

In 1963 the Irish Air Corps (IAC) began helicopter operations with the French built Aerospatiale Alouette III helicopter. This was an incredibly successful light utility helicopter, not only for the IAC but for multiple helicopter operators worldwide. The present-day IAC use the very latest 21st Century rotary technology and No 3 Operations (Helicopter) Wing has evolved to continue to perform multiple roles using this modern technology to its maximum effect in support of the Irish State.

The helicopter is on a rapid response protocol (average response time from call to airborne is 7mins 30 secs) and deals primarily with severe traumas.

During the first years of the 2000s, a decision was taken to replace the venerable Alouette and Dauphin fleets with a new modern helicopter, which would be capable of multiple roles. This led to the purchase of the ultra-modern Agusta-Westland AW139 fleet of helicopters. The AW139s are a new-generation powerful medium twin-turbine multi-crew helicopter. The first AW139 helicopter was sold in 2003, so with only 12 years since the initial production aircraft, they represent the very latest in helicopter technology flying in Ireland today. This technology includes a four-axis digital autopilot, which means that they can be flown completely hands-off from just after lift-off until landing. Situational awareness is aided by the use of a Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance system, an Enhanced Ground Proximity Warning System, digital weather radar, digital moving map, and Forward Looking Infra-Red. The cockpit comprises five large flat-screen high-definition colour LCD multi-function displays, which can be selected to display a combination of information relative to the mission and phase of flight.

The two powerful Pratt & Whitney PT6C-67C jet engines provide the helicopter with the best power reserve of any helicopter in the medium twin-engine class in the world. This phenomenal power combined with an ultra-modern main rotor also means that the AW139 is the fastest helicopter in the world in its class. The rear cabin is of a modular design, allowing for the rapid re-fitting for role, ranging from Special Forces hostage rescue insertion/extraction missions, to Presidential VIP transport, to a comprehensive ‘airborne intensive care’ air ambulance kit, to search and rescue missions. The cabin can also be fitted with a mass-casualty litter system, carrying up to six NATO stretchers in a secure frame, plus troop seats for extra walking wounded casualties. The IAC has also developed a fully operational capability of flying using Night Vision Goggles (NVG) using the most advanced goggles available enabling low-level transits even on the darkest of nights, on night time air ambulances for example. The increase in safety during night operations by using NVG is immeasurable.

The IAC air ambulance capability has also been enhanced and continues to develop since the first helicopter air ambulance in the State in December 1963. The IAC at present operates two helicopter air ambulance rosters. An AW139 is on call in Baldonnel 24 hrs/day (using NVG at night), 365 days/year to conduct air ambulances on behalf of the HSE, on an as-available basis. These air ambulances work can vary from inter-hospital transfers of critically-ill adults and children, to neonatal transfers in co-operation with the National Neonatal Transportation Team using a specially designed incubator for critically ill infants, to rapid transportation of people requiring organ transplant, to the transportation of organ-retrieval teams and organs. The US-built LifePort stretcher system is used for air ambulances in the AW139, which provides for a fully-contained stretcher incorporating integral oxygen and power supply for monitors, ventilator, defibrillator, suction, fluid pumps, etc. The specially designed incubator for neonatal missions attaches directly to the LifePort stretcher.

The second air ambulance is currently based in Athlone Barracks and operates a dedicated Emergency Aeromedical Service (EAS) jointly with the National Ambulance Service (NAS) for the whole country. This AW139 has a NAS Advanced-Paramedic permanently attached to the helicopter crew. The helicopter is on a rapid response protocol (average response time from call to airborne is 7mins 30 secs) and deals primarily with severe traumas (eg. serious road traffic collisions), severe cardiac incidents and stroke victims, and any other injuries or illnesses where there is a significant risk to life. The EAS AW139 routes directly to the scene of the person in distress, thereby saving extremely valuable time in getting a person rapidly to an appropriate primary treatment hospital. The service recently completed its one thousandth successful mission following the launch of the service in June 2012.