Its fair to say the influence of the University of Michigan is felt well beyond the boundaries of its home city of Ann Arbor, Mich. Despite the city itself having a population of around just 114,000, it contains the Big House the largest sports stadium in the United States. Attendances for home games played by the Michigan Wolverines have not dipped below 100,000 since 1975, as devotees from across the region continue to display their passion for the countrys winningest college football team.
For this seasons home opener, on Sept. 8, an incredible 112,522 people packed into the Big House to see the Wolverines take on the United States Air Force Academy. As excitement peaked before kickoff, three of the universitys most recent arrivals from another, equally exceptional program had their moment in the spotlight. To the roar of the crowd, three Eurocopter EC155 B1s, belonging to the universitys Survival Flight air ambulance program, soared over the stadium. The sleek new helicopters had been in service just over a month, but the flyover worked as a very public introduction to the wider community the aircraft will serve. With a reach as broad as the football teams appeal, the 155s will enable Survival Flights life-saving crews to reach more communities than ever before.
Providing an elite service
Based at the University of Michigan Medical Center, Survival Flight is now in its 30th year of operation, and between its three helicopters and the Cessna Citation Encore it also operates (for longer-distance patient or organ transfer), the team completes roughly 1,200 flights a year, making it the biggest helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) operator in the state. Of those flights, about 90 percent are patient transfers: the University of Michigan Health System is home to many world-class specialty treatment centers (including centers for burns, pediatrics, and respiratory disease, to name just a few) and shuttling patients to these exceptional facilities makes up the bulk of Survival Flights work. Were what can be described as not a tertiary institution, but a quaternary institution, Dr. Mark Lowell, medical director of Survival Flight, told Vertical. When people are so sick that theyve exceeded the capabilities of even some of the more advanced hospitals, this is the place in Michigan that they get referred to by and large.
When Survival Flight began service with a Eurocopter AS355 TwinStar in 1983, it was the first air medical organization in Michigan. It went on to achieve several more industry firsts in North America, from operating the first EMS Bell 230, to the first EMS Bell 430, and now the first EMS 155s. Were not averse to being the first in anything, Denise Landis, manager of critical care transport, told Vertical. We like it. We like the challenge. The 430 had challenged us in the design of the medical interior, and I think we did a pretty good job with that and you learn things as you go.
The 430 had been a popular aircraft with the flight crews, providing 12 years of service as each of the three airframes notched up just under 7,000 hours. But in 2008, when Bell announced that production of the 430 was to cease, the prospect of operating a legacy aircraft and having to deal with the resulting maintenance challenges encouraged the programs administrators to begin the search for the next generation of Survival Flight rotorcraft.
Landis said the immense amount of experience shared by those who make up the Survival Flight team meant they had a very clear idea of what sort of aircraft they needed to get the job done and how to make it work once chosen. We have people who have been around a long time; we know our patient population; we know the weight we carry; we know what we want and what we need, she said. Chief among requests from the nurses was more cabin space, while the pilots wanted more power. The standard Survival Flight crew is at least two flight nurses along with the pilot, and a resident if one is on call. But with the hot and humid Michigan summers, combined with the amount of equipment some patients require for transport, there were occasions when it was hard for the 430s to get off the ground. I had to leave a nurse in Fort Wayne one time, said Jeff Dowdall, aviation manager for Pentastar Aviation, the Federal Aviation Regulations Part 135 operator that provides aviation services for Survival Flight. We had a balloon pump on along with a lot of other gear, and we were just too heavy for the conditions.
With the set criteria in place, a request for proposals (RFP) was sent out, and the submissions quickly whittled down to two contenders: the AgustaWestland AW139, and the EC155. Competition between the two was tight, but one of the deciding factors was the footprint of the aircraft. There are 197 places on Survival Flights database that the service visits. Of these, 97 are hospital helipads around the state, many of which Survival Flight had helped upgrade with the Bell 430 in mind. Im thinking, here weve gone to all these hospitals to help them with their helipads, and now were not going to land on it, said Landis. The 139 was just too big. The 155, on the other hand, is actually three feet shorter than the 430 from tip to tail, and would have no problem using the 430s landing areas.
One the decision had been made on the 155, the RFP for completions was sent out. We needed a company that was willing not to talk us into what they thought we needed but to listen to us about what we need, and [to] partner with us and come up with a good product, said Landis. Metro Aviation got the bid, and they were fabulous to work with.
Nursing the Design
The flight nurses were heavily involved in the design of the interior from the very beginning. Ben Tung, a flight nurse with 25 years experience at Survival Flight, led the design process though he is keen to stress that it was a group effort, with all 22 nurses on the Survival Flight team included. As a group, we really appreciate that the administration allowed us complete control of the medical side of the interior, said Tung. They basically said, Its all yours. Its your office, you design it, you build it . . . you live with the consequences!
Each time Tung travelled down to Metros completions facility in Shreveport, La., a different group of nurses went with him, to give them all exposure to the design process. On the groups first trip, before the 155s had even left Eurocopters facility in Europe, they found a full-size plywood mock-up of the aircrafts cabin waiting for them. The nurses were given stickers to put in the cabin, to indicate where theyd ideally want various pieces of equipment.
Metro was very good, they had people like Russell Garner who were very experienced at designing EMS aircraft, said Tung. The challenge of designing an aircraft with this size, is that while its nice it has room and holds people, where do you put the equipment? When youre in a smaller aircraft, the far side of the patient isnt being used for anything but equipment, but with this youre really centered in the aircraft. We wanted to be able to have all our primary equipment within arms reach without being unbuckled.
The finished interior has given the flight nurses a 235-cubic-foot cabin in which to work, as compared to the 430s 158 cubic feet. A large sliding door gives the team a much larger entrance, providing easier access. Its hard to lose control of an airway or anything like that when you can literally walk with the patient as theyre being loaded into the aircraft, said Lowell, Survival Flights medical director. Once on board, the spacious cabin allows for four crash-attenuating Martin Baker seats around the litter. In the 430, the litter was on one side of the cabin, meaning access to one side of the patient was always restricted. I had to put my head against the wall and work backwards underneath to get to the far side of the patient, said Tung. With the 155, we can work both sides. Theres access everywhere you need.
The seats are also very light, and can be installed and removed in seconds, but its the tracking system that runs the length of the litter on each side that provides the flight nurses with the ultimate in flexibility. With just the flick of a lever, the seats can be slid down and locked into position at any point down the track, while another lever allows them to swivel.
The lighting was another major issue for the flight nurses working the night shift, as night vision goggle (NVG) compatibility in the 430 had resulted in limited lighting in the back. Metro created a system with a bank of lighting over the central litter, with different colors and brightness available to suit any day or nighttime requirement. Each crew station has a touchscreen panel to control the cabin lighting, microphone and radio settings, as well as the vast range of medical equipment on the aircraft. Metro was also able to create a loading light design to enable the flight nurses to direct light outside the aircraft even when the engine isnt running.
So far, the 155 has proved a big hit with the medical team. Its been a great experience, said flight nurse Joetta Vamos. Were still working out little kinks here and there, but the space makes a world of difference to us. Were able to take everything out that we need and were not fumbling through bags as much. Its just a much more controlled environment.
With the completed aircraft coming in at $10.1 million U.S. each, critical care transport manager Landis is well aware of accusations that Survival Flight is out of touch with reality. People say, You guys are spoiled. No, we have a budget. Were accountable. But we have to be able to deliver that patient care thats unique to the institution. We have to be an extension of what goes on here. And the ability to get this aircraft is the ability to meet this mission.
The operating statistics for the 155 as compared to the 430 are pretty attention-grabbing. Configured for Survival Flight, the 155s operational empty weight is 7,000 pounds (3,175 kilograms), compared to the 430s 6,500 pounds (2,948 kilograms). But, with the power provided by its two Turbomeca Arriel 2C2 turbine engines (which are fitted with full authority digital engine controls), it has a maximum gross takeoff weight of 10,846 pounds (4,920 kilograms) well above the 430s 9,300 pounds. The 155s fuel tank can carry 332 gallons (the 430s held 247), extending Survival Flights theoretical maximum range from 353 nautical miles to 427. It can get there faster, too, with a cruising speed of 155 knots (the Bell cruised at around 139 knots).
According to Jeff Dowdall, aviation manager for Survival Flight contractor Pentastar Aviation, the superior capabilities of the 155 were illustrated on a recent trip to Alpena, in northeast Michigan. The journey used to require a fuel stop on the way back to Ann Arbor, but the 155 completed the return journey with an hour of gas still left in the tank. Were still trying to figure out the range, said Dowdall. We havent gone as far as we think we can go, but we have gone to the upper peninsula [of Michigan] already.
The pilot station in the aircrafts glass cockpit is centered around dual Sagem flat-panel displays: a pilot flight display and a multifunction display. Dual WAAS (Wide Area Augmentation System)-capable Garmin 430W GPS navigation systems were angled by Metro to make them easier for the pilot to read. A Technisonic TDFM7000 communications system was installed by Metro, providing easy frequency programming. Sky Connect is used for the computers satellite tracking system, while a cockpit voice recorder and camera keep an audio and visual record of each flight.
Each of the 11 Pentastar pilots who work for Survival Flight completed a training program in France, with 30 hours in simulators at Helisim Training Academy, located next door to Eurocopters head office in Marignane, near Marseilles. For Dowdall, the biggest change from the previous aircraft is the power of the 155: even fully laden with five passengers and a 238-pound isolette, hes had no problems taking off. However, he has been particularly impressed with the autopilot.
The four-axis autopilot is fantastic, said Dowdall. You just tell it how high to go, how fast to go and where to go and it will put the power in there, turn and climb. If you want to change the airspeed, you just use your thumb on a switch on the cyclic; you dont use the collective. It can be a little jerky on the transition, but it will do it itself, and not overtemp or overtorque.
Well Supported Debut
The task of keeping Survival Flights fleet in the air falls to Bryan Clay and his team of five maintenance technicians. Two helicopters are kept in active service at all times with the third serving as backup. The two in active service are based at the University Hospital and in Livingston County Airport in Howell, Mich., where a new state-of-the-art EMS base is currently under construction. Aircraft maintenance is completed by the Pentastar maintenance team at Ann Arbor Airport, but this may be moved to the Livingston County base once its completed.
The maintenance team also completed a training course at Eurocopters facility in Grand Prairie, Texas before they could begin work on the 155. But the support from the manufacturer didnt stop there. Weve had to work some minor issues out, but Eurocopter and Turbomeca have been really good, said Clay. Eurocopter had a tech rep up here for almost two months when we first started, to help get [the 155s] online. . . . Theyre really looking at this test bed, because theres no one out there flying it as much as we have. Were going to see the weak points on this aircraft, but so far, the one has got about 170 hours, and it seems to be doing pretty well.
The number of hours flown by the aircraft in the first month of its operation, allied with the fact that the 430s were still in service (flying 70 hours between them in August), meant that the six maintenance technicians had a very busy month. It can be difficult, at times, to keep two aircraft going, 24/7, said Clay. But so far, with this aircraft, it seems to be working out a little bit easier for us than the Bell.
One of the added bonuses for the maintenance team and everyone associated with the program is the level of noise created by the new aircraft, with noise reduction in the tail rotor enhancing the technological advances made since the 430. I live right in the pathway of the hospital to Livingston County Airport, and Id hear the Bell from far enough away that I could get out and look up to see which one it was, said Clay. With these, you need to run out the door as soon as you hear it [in order not to miss it], because the noise signature has been reduced so much!
A hold-up in getting the Martin Baker seats certified delayed the operational debut of Survival Flights 155s, but pilot training meant they were seen around the city and noticed. With a sharp new paint scheme (featuring the distinctive winged brow of the football teams helmet on the aircrafts nose), the community took to social media to talk about the new arrivals. There were pictures being posted on Survival Flights Facebook page that none of us had ever seen before, said Landis. Our marketing people started putting snippets of information out, bit by bit, because people were so excited about it. Then when they did the official press release, they had about 900 likes within an hour. It was unbelievable!
Given the level of service that Survival Flight is able to provide, however transporting those needing the very highest level of care and treatment from across the region such an immediate and enthusiastic reaction shouldnt be so surprising. And judging by the success the program has had to this point, itll be creating many more fans in the future in full keeping with the Wolverines tradition.
Oliver Johnson is online editor of MHM Publishings Canadian Skies and Vertical magazines.