The Pilatus PC-12 turboprop single is gaining ground as a cost-effective alternative to helicopter air ambulances.
Pilatus has formally identified 73 PC-12s worldwide being used for medevac missions, but Tom Aniello, vice president of marketing for Pilatus Business Aircraft, thinks that number is conservative. “We don’t have visibility on a lot of the used PC-12s that are being bought for this mission,” he said. Aniello thinks that the PC-12 is becoming more attractive for the mission as the price of used aircraft has declined. “Now that pre-owned PC-12s can be found on the market for around $2 million, we are seeing more entities adopt it, as the economics and performance make a lot of sense for the air ambulance mission,” he said.
According to the aircraft pricing service Vref, used PC-12s made between 1995 and 2006 fall into this category, with prices as low as $1.45 million. Large medevac fleet operators of the PC-12 include Native American Air Services, Air Methods, St. Charles Medical Center, the Royal Flying Doctor Service (Australia), Red Cross Air Mercy Service (South Africa) and Ornge (Canada).
In the U.S. and Canada, much of the PC-12 activity is concentrated close to the countries’ mutual border. “The majority of operators up in Canada are flying them,” said Preston Palmquist, an account executive with LifePort, a Sikorsky subsidiary that makes aircraft medical interiors for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. Palmquist said demand for LifePort products in PC-12s “has gotten hot over the last three year” and not just with large fleet operators such as Ornge, which flies 10 PC-12s. “For a lot of small operators who fly contracts for Ornge and other hospitals, the PC-12 seems to be the aircraft of choice. We’ve got them all along the border–North Dakota, Northern Idaho, Northern Washington, even one in Seattle,” Palmquist said.
Grand Forks Operation
Ben Dorman had accumulated more than a decade of flight nurse experience before moving back to Grand Forks, N.D. to be closer to his family. Upon his return, he saw a need for a local air ambulance service and in 2010 founded Valley Med Flight. Today the company operates six PC-12s from bases there and Iron Mountain, Mich.; Williston, N.D.; and Sidney, Mont. Two aircraft are held in reserve in Grand Forks and maintenance is performed at Fargo Jet Center, a Pilatus authorized service center. Three flight crews support each aircraft and work on a 12-hours-on/12-hours-off schedule with seven days on and seven off. Crews consist of the pilot, paramedic and flight nurse. The medical crews are trained to critical care standards, while pilots must possess an ATP certificate and a minimum of 2,000 hours. “Our average pilot has 4,000 to 5,000 hours of total time,” Dorman said. But beyond the numbers, Dorman said his company “really focuses on finding the right person,” noting that the inherent challenges of medevac flying are not for everyone.
Each aircraft has its own hangar and each base has a company-owned or -rented crew house close to the airport. Each aircraft flies an average of 70 to 80 hours per month, Dorman said. The Williston aircraft, based at the epicenter of the red-hot Bakken shale oil development region, can fly more than 100 hours per month. “Last month we had 57 transports that originated in Williston,” Dorman said.
“We can be wheels-up from the time of a call in 30 minutes or less,” Dorman said. Virtually all of the transports involve patients in critical condition who need to be moved quickly to a higher level of care. The PC-12 cruises at 270 knots, more than twice as fast as a helicopter.
Dorman said a fixed-wing solution in Valley Med Flight’s markets just makes sense. “It’s cheaper, faster and safer. It’s a huge benefit to the patient. Our cost is at minimum 35 to 40 percent less with a 500-percent increase in safety [compared with helicopters]. The insurance companies love it because they are not paying nearly as much as they would for a helicopter. It is a win-win for everybody,” he said. “There are so many days that helicopters cannot fly, particularly in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, and it makes an airplane just that much more appealing. I believe that any time you are traveling more than 100 miles with a patient it is more appropriate to be using fixed-wing [aircraft] as opposed to helicopters.”
Valley Med Flight uses Spectrum Aeromed interiors complete with advanced monitors and ventilators. All of the company’s PC-12s have the increased gross weight modification for Dash 45 aircraft and can transport patients weighing up to 650 pounds.
Fixed-wing medical interiors can cost up to two-thirds less than those for helicopters, said LifePort’s Palmquist and, unlike those for helicopters, they can be swapped out easily to convert the aircraft back to passenger service. “Our systems attach to the existing aircraft seat track and can be installed or pulled out in ten minutes–even you or I could do it,” Palmquist said. The aircraft does need a wiring modification to facilitate the initial install. The typical single-patient setup includes base unit, stretcher and a loading system to get the stretchered patient through the aircraft door and onto the base unit. The base unit contains an inverter, oxygen bottle, compressed air pump and suction pump. Installation approval is via a Section 337 signoff. The PC-12 can accommodate up to two LifePort units. Each unit costs approximately $52,000.
Besides installing medical interiors, Valley Med Flight has also upgraded the instrument panels of its PC-12s with Garmin GTN 750/650 touchscreen GPS and an MFD, either the King 850 or Garmin GMX 200.
Dorman said his company is looking into doing human organ transports as well as flying patients and is exploring possible expansion into other markets. “I think you will see [PC-12 air ambulance operations] growing farther south. This is the appropriate aircraft for doing the mission: You don’t run into payload issues and the aircraft has a relatively low operating cost.”