DGAC tests satnav route for helo air ambulance service

 - January 27, 2009, 9:49 AM

French civil aviation authority DGAC, Eurocopter and the French association of EMS doctors (AFHSH) late last year tested a satnav IFR route between two hospitals, with the goal of easing patient transfer. The next phase in the trials will involve carrying patients in the EC 145. The partners hope to use this GPS route permanently later this year, thus enabling operations in most weather.

The demonstration took place between hospitals in Nogent-le-Rotrou and Dreux, in the northwest of the country. During the course of 12 flight hours, Eurocopter was able to explore the operational envelope, according to test pilot René Nater. The EC 145 used for the demonstration was equipped with a Garmin GNS 430 GPS receiver.
The point in space (PINS) in Nogent is at a crossroads in a valley. The PINS in Dreux is easier to locate since it is the small local airport. From a PINS, the pilot flies visually to the destination.

The DGAC has set a minimum height of 400 feet. Due to terrain and obstacles, this translates into 670 feet above the ground at Nogent. “When we fly at 70 knots, visibility of 1,300 feet is fine,” Nater added. The company hopes to achieve better performance–in terms of weather having less of an impact–when the higher-precision EGNOS satellite-based augmentation system enters service next year.

One outstanding question is whether the DGAC will mandate better helipad equipment, such as lighting, when these flights are commonplace. Depending on the helipad’s size and level of equipment, such flights can be operated under Category I or II.

The goal of the trials is to make more efficient use of helicopter air ambulance services. “Until now, helicopters operating on medical missions flew under visual flight rules,” the DGAC emphasized. For hospital-to-hospital transfers, helicopter transport is said to be three times faster than road transportation, and making such flights available in more weather conditions will enhance the efficiency of the service. Meanwhile, the ongoing reorganization of the French public health system calls for concentrating specialist medical services at a smaller number of hospitals. This in turn increases the need for air ambulance services that are affected by the weather as little as possible.

This demonstration marks “the first trials in Europe of helicopters operating in an IFR configuration to perform medical transport flights,” according to the DGAC and Eurocopter. The manufacturer has been working with the AFHSH and the DGAC since 2007 to define “the appropriate regulatory, technical and operational framework for IFR flights in a specifically medical context.” The Nogent-Dreux route will serve as a model for similar services linking hospitals in other regions of France.     o