South Africa's 'Rocket' Air Ambulance Service Takes Off

 - July 11, 2021, 10:04 PM
Rocket CEO Boeta Dippenaar poses with "Rocket 1," an aero-medical equipped Bell 222UT, one of five of the type operated by the company.

Helicopter EMS (HEMS) firm Rocket is celebrating its first year of service in the South Africa air ambulance market. The company acronym stands for “rapid on-call emergency transport.”

A division of Henley Air, Rocket operates a mixed fleet of five Bell 222s and plans to add three Bell 230s in the coming months. Operating with a staff of 25, Rocket transported 300 patients during its recently concluded first year of service, dispatching from bases in Johannesburg and Kimberley. The two bases can cover roughly one-third of the country.  Rocket is one of five HEMS/air ambulance firms currently operating in the country—the others are Netcare 911, HALO, Red Cross AMS, Black Eagle Aviation—and the entire venture is privately funded by two shareholders. 

To date, Rocket has had no problems with sourcing parts for the vintage 222s, either from third-party providers or directly from Bell, according to Henley Air Group chairman Dr. Andre Coetzee, who said he literally scoured the globe to find the right machines. Coetzee said he came up with the idea to launch Rocket in 2011, but the “idea didn’t gain traction” until 2019. 

The 222s can be flown both VFR and IFR by Rocket, and all ships are IFR-equipped. Helicopter pilots stay IFR current in the company’s Bell 222UT FNTP II simulator, but operate most flights VFR. Night flights are always conducted with two-pilot crews. Rocket was also the first commercial operator in South Africa to add night vision goggle (NVG) capability, according to Coetzee. This allowed the company to increase its night flying by 70 percent, he said, and was “most useful during dark moon phases in remote areas.” 

Each 222 is kitted with full intensive care equipment, said Coetzee, including ventilator, multi-parameter electrocardiogram and defibrillator, syringe drivers and infusion pumps, suction, vacuum mattress, scoop stretcher, head immobilization device, spider harness, traction splint, extrication device, jump bags, drug bags, in-flight infusion and hemorrhage pouches, and multiparameter patient monitor. Each base has a portable neonatal kit and an incubator that can be loaded aboard the aircraft. 

Boeta Dippenaar, the former South African cricket star, is an experienced helicopter pilot and Rocket’s CEO. He thinks that while Rocket’s service model is exportable to neighboring countries, “significant government buy-in will be required.” For now, he and his team are focused on providing the best-level care possible to existing customers, relying on “faith” and a “firm belief in our own crew and resources.” This was particularly true, Dippenaar said, given that Rocket launched in the middle of a country-wide hard lock-down during the pandemic but still managed to navigate the regulatory and technical hurdles. “Ignorance is sometimes a blessing,” he said.  

“The Covid pandemic has been particularly difficult to navigate, and posed serious operational and logistical challenges,” said Coetzee. “It has also forced us to think differently with regard to suitable funding models and actually putting the patient first.”