Air medical helicopters have come a long way since Jan. 5, 1945, when a Bell 47 prototype carried a doctor to an injured test pilot who was stranded at a snowbound farm near Lockport, New York after he had bailed out of a P-59 Airacomet when its tail section exploded. MASH units during the Korean War later established the life-saving potential of helicopter medevacs, and veteran helicopter pilots of the Vietnam War era often found flying jobs in nascent civilian airmed operations.
Today, well-run air ambulance ops are common in most developed countries, and one of the best is New South Wales (NSW) Ambulance Service in Australia. It is the 2020 recipient of the HAI Salute to Excellence Golden Hour Award, which “recognizes the efforts of an individual, group, or organization that, through a particular activity or contributions over time, has advanced the use of helicopters in the vital mission of air medical transport.”
The NSW Ambulance Aeromedical Rescue Helicopter Service had been operating for three decades when it found itself providing a patchwork of rudimentary capabilities across multiple providers. So in 2012, the government of New South Wales—a state on Australia's east coast—initiated an independent review that resulted in a 10-year plan to improve patient outcomes for all residents and communities across the state, an area slightly larger than Texas. This goal, it was believed, could be achieved only by changing the way aeromedical support is provided and by standardizing integration with the state’s medical services. Ron Manning, director of aeromedical services, and Garry Sinclair, head of helicopter operations, knew that the plan would need improved patient outcomes, integrated team training, and safety above all else.
NSW Ambulance (its new name) now operates from seven bases across the state, flying 12 Leonardo AW139 helicopters, all with the same aircraft and aeromedical configurations, and with crews using a common set of operational standards and procedures. Now more than 96 percent of the state’s population are within one hour of an air ambulance helicopter and a critical-care doctor and paramedic team, even in remote areas.
Central to NSW Ambulance’s focus on safety is the Aeromedical Crewing Excellence Training Centre in Bankstown, NSW, which provides fully integrated technical and nontechnical skills training for helicopter clinical crews, pilots, air crews, engineers, and specialist support personnel. The facility’s growing list of high-fidelity simulation devices includes a level-D AW139 full-flight simulator; an advanced sea survival and underwater escape training facility; a virtual-reality–based, full-crew cockpit and cabin training system; wet- and dry-winching training capabilities; and a suite of advanced clinical simulation assets.
The results? In just two and a half years, NSW Ambulance has flown some 17,000 hours and completed more than 10,000 critical-care missions at multiple sites, including canyons, crevasses, roadways, rivers, oceans, frozen lakes, cliffs, and cruise ships. The service’s response time averages less than 10 minutes in daylight and less than 20 minutes at night.