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Since bringing a new Airbus BK117 B2 online, medevac provider HALO Air Ambulance is able to serve all of southern Alberta with one aircraft efficiently, and is the only dedicated program to serve the entire region.
Operating as a non-profit organization out of one base in Medicine Hat, Alberta, HALO has been in service since 2007, flying medevac missions with one single-engine Bell 206 LongRanger, operated by Rangeland Helicopters, since its inception. HALO’s BK117, which Rangeland also holds the air operator certificate for, is a new addition to the program as of mid-2018; the aircraft, which was previously an air medical helicopter from North Carolina, has allowed HALO to greatly expand its coverage in southern Alberta.
“We cover all of southern Alberta because of the BK’s range,” said Paul Carolan, CEO of HALO, who also has an emergency medical services and search-and-rescue background. “We can get all the way to the U.S. border — south of Lethbridge, [Alberta] — over to Waterstone National Park . . . technically speaking, we could make just south of Red Deer, [Alberta], and still make it to the Foothills [Medical Centre] in Calgary on one tank of fuel because we’re maximizing that range.”
While the program has had great success with the 206 over the last decade, Carolan said the need for a twin-engine aircraft became apparent after Alberta Health Services put the program on a fee-for-service model in early 2018, “which with the 206 is pretty viable,” he said. “But then we were told we would never be taken seriously unless we brought a twin engine [aircraft] online.”
Operating a twin-engine aircraft with Category A performance allows HALO to land virtually anywhere, which means the program can accept more missions. Carolan said HALO is cleared to land the 206 at the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital helipad, but cannot get the same clearance into Calgary or Lethbridge. HALO flew, on average, 25 medevac missions a year when operating the 206, but since bringing the BK117 online just over a year ago, that number has increased drastically to 60 missions a year to date.
The program still flies the 206 on occasion, such as when the BK117 undergoes annual scheduled maintenance. Though rare, the 206 is also brought online when an urgent call comes in and the BK117 is already out on a mission.
“HALO believes strongly in doing the right thing, and even though we have no contractual obligation to have a second aircraft available, if we have the crews and the people, it’s just the right thing to do.”
HALO primarily responds to on-scene calls, which have provided some challenging environments to land in.
“With the BK, we have been on missions into the Cypress Hills, which are at the same elevation as the town of Banff, [Alberta],” said Carolan. “We were up there this February on a really cold day for a guy that injured himself back-country skiing. We landed on top of a plateau — he was kind of down in a depression that was in the snow — and it was pretty adverse. But the ground rescue would have taken hours.”
HALO’s BK117 has a particle separator on the front of the aircraft, which it came equipped with from North Carolina. The particle separator filters out dust, farm field shaft, sand, etc., allowing clean air into the engine. “That makes it possible for us to land pretty much anywhere — highways, back country roads, gravel roads, farm fields,” said Carolan. “It’s a pretty capable aircraft and it does a really good job.”
Every flight is staffed with a two-pilot crew, which includes a captain and first officer (which could be another captain flying in the left seat). The operations side of the HALO team includes a chief pilot who doubles as the operations manager, two additional captains, two first officers and a chief engineer.
The pilots work 14-hour days on daytime flight rules only. HALO is currently fundraising for night vision goggles (NVGs), and has received a proposal from a U.S.-based company to provide the goggles. Carolan said the program is hoping to have the NVGs and training complete for the spring of 2020.
Every flight has a minimum of one, but ideally two Alberta Health Services paramedics on board who respond from the Medicine Hat Regional Hospital — which is roughly four minutes from HALO’s base.
The BK117 has been a game changer for the paramedics, especially since HALO let the paramedics design the air medical interior. The aircraft has been outfitted with the power-assisted Stryker stretcher system, which is the same system used in the Alberta Health Services ground ambulances. (Alberta Health Services invested millions of dollars nearly six years ago to outfit all the ground ambulances with the Stryker stretcher system.)
The standardization of the stretchers saves time, Carolan said, as the flight paramedics can take the stretcher from the ground ambulance and put it into the helicopter, and there’s no need to move patients from one stretcher to another.
“All the paramedics are familiar with it… they’ve been using it for a few years, and it just made sense,” he added. “It was a bit of work to get it approved . . . but it makes a big difference for us. We’ve flown probably 20 missions with it now.”
Over the last decade, Carolan said HALO has received incredible support from the communities it serves. Since the program has increased its range into more communities with the BK117, the support has increased tenfold.
“HALO was driven by people who are trying to do the right thing, and it’s been [sustained] by even more people trying to do the right thing,” he said. “People believe strongly in HALO and have advocated for it and been upset when we haven’t been funded provincially. There’s a lot of grassroots support, and people that just believe in doing the right thing.”