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Cornwall Air Ambulance is celebrating the arrival of a new Leonardo AW169 helicopter, which will replace the service’s MD 902 Explorer. The next-generation air ambulance helicopter will ensure the charity’s critical care paramedics can reach even more people in their hour of need.
Taking to the skies in 1987, Cornwall Air Ambulance was the first air ambulance service in the U.K. It has now completed more than 28,000 missions, saving countless lives. The helicopter flies more than 800 missions every year and is on scene in an average of 12 minutes on mainland Cornwall, and less than 30 minutes on the Isles of Scilly. As a charity, it does not receive any government support but relies on the generosity of public donations, which have helped raise more than US$2.8 million towards the new helicopter as well as to fund the service each year.
After in-depth research, the charity identified the AW169 as the helicopter to help save more time and more lives. The helicopter was built in Italy by manufacturer Leonardo, and was then brought to the U.K. to be fitted with a special medical interior. The aircraft was delivered on Feb. 25 to Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust, based at Cornwall Airport Newquay, and was deemed mission-ready on April 1 to respond to emergencies across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.
Air operations officer Steve Garvey leads the dedicated crew of Cornwall Air Ambulance critical care paramedics. Garvey joined the aircrew in 2009 and now has over 2,200 missions under his belt. Explaining why the charity chose the AW169, he said: “It is faster — travelling at 145 knots instead of the previous 120 knots — more powerful, and has double the fuel range of our current aircraft, which crucially means the crew will be available to fly more missions back-to-back without having to refuel. The quicker we get to a patient, the sooner we can start their treatment and improve that patient’s outcome.”
Garvey’s main priority in choosing the AW169 was that it would help the team improve the care they give their patients. He said: “Part of this was about having the ability to carry more medical equipment, so we can make more lifesaving interventions on scene. The extra power of the AW169 will allow us to do this. It gives our team 360-degree access to the patient with a stretcher down the middle, whereas in our current aircraft, the MD 902, we can only treat them from one side. It may sound simple, but having the extra space to allow two crew members to work on a patient will greatly improve the care we can give.”
In 2019, the critical care team were tasked to 1,144 missions across Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. On average, nearly 60 percent of missions are in response to medical emergencies and the remainder are due to severe trauma injuries, such as falls and road traffic collisions (RTCs). One in four missions are for patients suffering cardiac arrest, while one in 10 are to help children.
Chief pilot captain Adam Smith, who has flown both the current MD 902 and the new AW169 aircraft, enthused: “There are many upgrades in the aircraft that will make a real difference to operations here. The AW169 is more ergonomic and has some of the most advanced navigation capabilities to offer in the industry. It has an auxiliary power unit that allows us to shut down an engine and stop the rotors while maintaining electrical power. This will help to reduce disruption at scene — for instance, if we land on a busy beach in the summer.”
He added: “There are increased safety features such as a rear camera to check the engines, and the clinical crew will also have TCAS warnings in their headsets in the back, so they are alerted to other nearby aircraft. It is great to fly, and from the training flights we have conducted so far we are already seeing the difference in timing to locations across the county — which will make a huge difference when we are on an emergency mission.”
When asked about the percentages of landing at a scene without support already there, Smith replied: “It’s about 50/50 of landing on our own. It obviously moves away from the beaches in the winter when we have more RTCs and incidents in the more inaccessible areas of moors, etc.”
Given the county’s isolated beaches, rural settlements, and challenging road networks, Cornwall Air Ambulance is considered a lifeline. The charity believes the AW169 will improve the quality of care patients receive, giving them an even better chance of survival. The extra space, technologically advanced features, and ability to carry more medical equipment will enable an emergency department to be created in the back of the helicopter. Garvey added: “We will in effect be taking the hospital to the patient, whether they are on a cliff top, roadside, living room or beach.”