Air Methods dedication to saving lives leads to domination in EMS and SAR
Interest in trying new equipment has brought a wide variety of helicopters, some TPs and avionics innovations to company fleet.
By Woody McClendon
ATP/Helo. Challenger 604,
Bell 222/412, Eurocopter AS350B3
Air Methods team members in front of the company's newest Bell 429. (L–R) A&P Sheet Metal Chris Hall, Avionics Tech Andrea Andrews, A&P Mechanic Lena Kilbourn, A&P Sheet Metal Susan Clark, Senior VP Aviation Services Archie Gray and Pres Domestic Aviation Services Mike Allen.
If you follow the air medical business, you know that Air Methods is the dominant player. One reason is that, from the early days of EMS flying right up to the present, Air Methods Founder Roy Morgan remains deeply committed to the cause of saving lives.
Origin and early development
That commitment was birthed when a close friend of Morgan's was seriously injured in an accident in the Rockies, and died during the long ambulance ride to Denver.
Himself a qualified airplane and helicopter pilot, Morgan knew well the principle of the Golden Hour, learned on the battlefields of Vietnam where wounded soldiers who were flown to rearguard medical facilities survived far better than those who were treated in the battle zone. And the critical piece in the Golden Hour equation was the helicopter.
So Morgan set out to organize a medical helicopter service that would save trauma victims from meeting the same fate as his friend. He would need a helicopter operation and a hospital partner to provide the medical crew and treat the patients.
St Mary's Hospital in Grand Junction CO became the medical partner. And a Bell 206L1 LongRanger arrived at its new base at St Mary's.
A medical crew prepares to load a patient into a waiting EC130 for an emergency transport.
The program took a name—Air Life. Roy Morgan himself flew the 1st patient flight with nurses from St Mary's emergency room acting as the medical crew.
Air Life continued flying regular missions retrieving trauma patients from remote, rugged locations throughout Colorado. Morgan's determination never again to witness a friend perishing for lack of fast access to trauma care was paying off in lives saved.
The original LongRanger was current technology for that period, but it was designed for the offshore oil market, close to sea level, not the Rocky Mountains. This writer flew an L1 around the Rockies during the same time frame as Roy Morgan's first flights with Air Life. You learned the art of finessing a helicopter into doing things that were at the ragged edges of its performance envelope—or you crashed.
Morgan's missions in the L1 were challenges, managing a delicate balance between fuel, performance and patient weight.
When the more powerful 206L3 became available, Air Life brought it into service and gained a significant edge in performance. Missions that previously had to be turned down because of extreme density altitude conditions were suddenly workable.
As Air Life's medical crews developed their trade as air medical care givers, they brought more and more medical equipment with them. Soon the LongRanger cabin was crammed with their gear.
An Air Methods Eurocopter EC130 lands at a remote LZ to pick up a patient. The EC130 is well liked by medical crews for its spacious cabin.
These were tools vital to their mission, but it soon became clear that Air Life needed more cabin space. Bell introduced the 222—a roomy, twin-engine helicopter that seemed designed for the mission. It replaced the 206L3. Air Life eventually grew into a Bell 212 and then a 412.
As the air medical industry expanded across the US, it was inevitable that operating costs would become a prominent factor. HMOs, serving as fronts for the insurance companies, drove massive cost reductions throughout the medical care system, and helicopter programs were a big target. By then, many hospitals were using helicopters.
Decorated in hospital livery, they were viewed by administrators as assets for bringing in trauma patients from ever-widening territories, patients whose bills were large and were covered by insurance. Doctors saw helicopters as vital life-saving tools that gave trauma patients the chance to live that they would otherwise forfeit.
A drive toward economy
The cost cutters won out, and hospital helicopters went away. Many of those that survived downsized to less expensive, single-engine aircraft. While the LongRanger series was popular, med crews still didn't like working in their cramped cabins. Eurocopter had the answer—the AS350 AStar.
Built from the late 1970s on, Eurocopter improved the AStar, creating the AS350 B3 in the mid-90s with a significantly more powerful engine and other improvements. It became the world leader in single-engine helicopters. Best of all for medical crews, the AStar offered a 50% larger cabin than the LongRanger.
Today, with the air medical community now very much a business, the AStar dominates its ranks. It is the ideal mix of cabin space, operating reliability, performance and low operating costs.
Air Methods Senior VP Aviation Services Archie Gray, a seasoned veteran of the commercial helicopter business, says of the AStar powerplant's reliability, "The Turbomeca engine is the most reliable powerplant we've ever seen."
My own experience backs this up. In the air medical business, 4 or 5 starts per flight hour is the norm—and nothing is harder on a turbine engine than a start cycle. Yet even in this demanding environment, Turbomeca engines have demonstrated unprecedented reliability.
Despite the fact that costs are a major factor, a number of hospitals still demand twin-engine helicopters. To them the safety margin that 2 engines provide is worth the cost. Air Methods serves many of these hospitals, and its helicopter of choice is the Eurocopter EC135.