Though an unpleasant thought for many, serious accidents and severe medical conditions do happen. Such extreme circumstances can require the services of air ambulance companies. Air ambulance providers utilize a variety of aircraft types to provide critical lifesaving services. The types of aircraft utilized depend on the patient’s condition and distance to appropriate medical care. Perhaps the best known category of medical transport aircraft is the rotorcraft, or helicopter. These aircraft have the advantage of being able to take off and land in confined spaces. Helicopters are particularly useful in remote areas and locations far from airports. In addition, rotorcraft can provide point-to-point service from the pickup point directly to many hospitals. According to Michael Peat, a Florida-based pilot for Air Critical Care a leading air medical transportation service, helicopters are most useful within a 100-mile range. Beyond 100 miles, helicopters tend to lose their advantages to fixed-wing aircraft. Rotorcraft typically have slower cruise speeds and shorter ranges than their fixed-wing counterparts. In addition, cabin space is usually quite limited in helicopters. This lack of space, combined with payload (weight capacity) limits, often prevent a family member from accompanying a patient aboard a helicopter.
In the fixed-wing aircraft category, airplanes perform a number of medical evacuation, or medevac, flights. Piston-engine aircraft perform a significant number of these medical transportation flights. Piston-driven planes have the advantages of greater speed and range than most helicopters. In addition, piston-powered airplanes are usually able to operate from very short runways, providing access to the vast majority of airports. The models of piston planes used in air ambulance operations typically have larger cabins than medevac helicopters. These cabins often permit a family member to accompany patients on medical transportation flights.
Although they fill an important niche in the air ambulance arena, piston planes do have certain limitations. Unlike helicopters, planes require an airport or suitable strip to land. This limits the availability of landing sites and requires ground transportation to complete the leg to the medical facility. Also, the vibration and noise level of piston cabins can be somewhat fatiguing for those aboard. Though great for midrange flights, piston airplanes usually lack the greater speed and range of their turboprop and jet.
Turboprop aircraft combine turbine engines with propellers for several advantages. Turbine engines generally operate more smoothly than reciprocating (piston) engines and require less maintenance. Turbines also operate efficiently over a wider range of altitudes and temperatures. From a financial standpoint, turboprops offer some best-of-both-worlds benefits. They typically have greater speed and range than most piston planes while being more fuel efficient than jet aircraft. For mid- to long-range trips, turboprops are an invaluable asset to the air ambulance industry.
At the upper end of the airplane spectrum, jet aircraft are the unrivaled leaders in speed, range, and altitude. Jets have the ability to fly above most weather, allowing for more flexibility and greater trip completion. According to Peat, jets have a greater than 90% dispatch rate, meaning they are the most likely aircraft to be able to complete a trip. In a medical emergency, trip completion should be a major consideration. Jets also have greater cabin room and payload than most other aircraft, allowing them to carry more equipment, medical personnel, and often a family member or two. In addition, the advanced pressurization, environmental, and electrical systems found on jets provide for a greater degree of patient comfort and more options for medical equipment than the majority of smaller aircraft. For long-range air ambulance flights, jet airplanes are an absolute necessity.
Though great aircraft for medical transportation, jets aren’t without a few drawbacks. From a financial standpoint, jets are typically the most expensive aircraft to operate. Also, jets require greater runway lengths than their prop-driven counterparts. These runway requirements mean jets are unable to use some smaller runways, reducing the availability of suitable landing sites. In addition, like all airplanes, jets require ground transportation to the medical facility upon arrival.
When deciding on an air ambulance service, the patient’s condition should be the main consideration. For Advanced Life Support (ALS) or Critical Care (CC), be sure to choose an operator who specializes in those fields. For short-range transport and Basic Life Support (BLS), helicopter operators are usually the best choice. Jets and turboprops are the way to go for long-range medical transportation and more critical conditions.
Other factors to consider include the range of services offered by air ambulance companies. Some companies will arrange all necessary services from door-to-door, or bedside-to-bedside. These services include ground transportation on both ends of the flight, coordination with hospitals and medical providers, dealing with insurance companies, corresponding with family members, and administering medications and necessary medical procedures. For complicated medical conditions and long distance medical transportation, full-service air ambulance providers are an invaluable asset. An often-overlooked consideration is the possibility of medical emergencies while abroad. Medical emergencies can and do happen anywhere. Before traveling abroad, it is wise to consider available options for medical repatriation. Look for travel insurance that includes medical coverage abroad and repatriation to the United States. It is also wise to research air ambulance providers that specialize in medical repatriation. These companies can organize medical care from overseas countries back to the U. S. The best organizations will coordinate immigration and ticketing issues (if necessary) and even arrange interpreters for non-English-speaking situations. These services can be very helpful if a medical emergency should occur while overseas.
When a medical emergency occurs, air ambulance aircraft provide invaluable services to those affected. While many consider a severe accident or medical condition to be a slim possibility, researching available medical transportation can pay off should an unfortunate event happen. Becoming familiar with air ambulance options is an easy way to increase the chances of a happy outcome following a serious medical event. additional information maybe found at AirCriticalCare.com.
Michael Peat is a commercial airline transport pilot and a member of Air Critical Care LLC the leader in Air Medcical Services, and has been in the Air Ambulance business for over 12 years and aviation for almost 20 years. Learn more about our worldwide Air Ambulance Service by clicking here.