Italy using HH-101A helicopters to transport coronavirus patients

The Italian Air Force is using HH-101A helicopters as bio-containment transportation aircraft to assist in the country’s ongoing fight against the coronavirus that has sickened more than 40,000 Italians.

Italy on March 19 surpassed China for the number of deaths resulting from the novel coronavirus. Over the next three days, the Italian government reported more than 6,500 new cases, bringing the country’s total to 59,138, according to the Washington Post. More than 5,400 Italians had succumbed to the virus as of March 22.

Italian Air Force HH-101A for coronavirus transports
The Italian Air Force’s HH-101A, outfitted with an Aircraft Transit Isolator (ATI). Italian Air Force Photo
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Italian Defense Minister Lorenzo Guerini made the the HH-101A, based on the commercial Leonardo AW101, available to civil authorities for transporting patients infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. The air medical support mission has been in operation for about a month, according to Italian authorities.

A specially kitted HH-101A went into service at its base in the Italian east coast town of Cervia, home of the 15th Search and Rescue Wing, on March 6. The next afternoon, it was called by the Lombardy Regional Emergency and Urgency Agency to transport a 62-year-old patient with coronavirus from Cremona to the Morelli Hospital in Sondalo (Sondrio), according to the Italian Air Force.

The helicopter, with a medical team on board specialized in bio-containment transport, took off from Cervia shortly after receiving the mission order and reached the Cremona Hospital, where the patient was loaded according to strict COVID-19 procedures. The aircraft then took off again for Bormio, for the subsequent transfer to the Morelli Hospital in Sondalo. It has been flying missions across northern and central Italy in the intervening months as coronavirus has spread.

According to the Italian Air Force, the helicopter has been outfitted with standard aeromedical equipment and gear specific to carrying COVID-19 patients, including an Aircraft Transit Isolator (ATI), a special insulated stretcher designed for bio-containment air transportation of highly infectious patients.

Italy’s HH-101A “Caesar” aircraft first flew in 2014. Most of the 12 currently on order have been delivered and are used for special operations and personnel recovery missions, according to Leonardo. At least two of those aircraft have been converted for the COVID-19 support mission.

The Italian Air Force HH-101A Caesar helicopters are operated by crews coming from the 9th Squadron, based at Grazzanise Air-Base in south-central Italy, and the 15th Squadron, at Cervia Air-Base in the north. Together with a specialized Air Force medical team trained in bio-containment transportation, they are tasked with moving coronavirus patients to and between hospitals or medical structures.

The HH-101A Caesar can handle a variety of missions, including search-and-rescue, personnel recovery, special operations, and interception of slow flying aircraft. The helicopter is one of the most advanced configurations of the 16-tonne (35,000-pound) Leonardo AW101 helicopter.

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Around the world, helicopter EMS operators are working to establish protocols and policies for safely transporting suspected and known COVID-19 patients. Meanwhile, the virus has thrown a wrench in the entire global aviation industry, including at AW101 manufacturer Leonardo, which suspended some operations at its Milan headquarters March 16 to begin an antiviral deep clean of the premises. The company will gradually reopen those activities through March 25.

Italy’s armed forces are constantly monitoring the coronavirus outbreak and cooperating with the Department for Civil Protection and other civil health organizations. As soon as the first COVID-19 cases appeared in northern Italy, the country’s military mobilized along the entire peninsula, establishing 2,200 hospital rooms and 6,600 beds for COVID-19 patients.

The Italian army, navy, air force and the Carabinieri Corps have all contributed medical and nursing personnel to support the containment effort.

The Italian Joint Operations Headquarters (JOHQ) has implemented a 24-hour operational room dedicated to the coronavirus emergency, which coordinated all the transport of Italian citizens from abroad and now manages and shares information with other departments. The JOHQ also monitors the situation of Italian military personnel worldwide involved in international missions and operations, providing personnel protection with specific precautionary measures.

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