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.
Assisted by local firefighters and EMTs, a medical crew loads a trauma patient carefully into a waiting EC145 as emergency ground vehicles stand by.
Developed initially by Messerschmitt-Bölkow-Blohm (MBB) as a technology demonstrator, the EC135 entered production in 1996, after MBB had joined the merger that became Eurocopter.
While it was initially popular in Europe as a military and law enforcement helicopter, today more than 500 EC135s—roughly half of total production—are in use as air medical aircraft. Air Methods owns more than 80 EC135s—second only to the AStar in its fleet population.
"We find that the EC135 is the ideal aircraft for those air medical programs that require a twin-engine aircraft," says Air Methods Domestic Air Medical Services Pres Mike Allen. "Its large cabin offers a nice working environment for medical crews, particularly for specialty transports like neonatal and balloon pump missions."
The balloon pump is used with heart patients who require extensive circulation support while being transported for major heart procedures. Neonatal patients—usually premature babies who must travel in a protected environment of oxygen and warmth—are transported to hospitals that offer the specialized care they need in a special-purpose incubator called an isolette.
(L–R) Pres Domestic Aviation Services Mike Allen discusses Air Methods' history of pioneering air medical mission as Dir Corporate Communications Tracey Budz and Author McClendon listen.
Balloon pumps and isolettes are bulky and require AC power as well as a constant oxygen source. The EC135's large cabin, onboard oxygen systems and large-capacity AC inverters make it the vehicle of choice for these demanding missions.
One feature of the EC135 that adds to its value in the air medical business is its compact footprint. More often than not, landing zones (LZs) are laid out by first responders who are preoccupied with patient care and don't always pay attention to surrounding obstacles.
Most trauma flights happen at night, when wires, trees and nearby towers can easily be overlooked by ground personnel. Helicopters with that vital smaller footprint can hover in to hastily organized LZs with far fewer accidents than their larger counterparts. And the EC135 has the power to execute the steep departures that these LZs demand, and to do so safely.
Operational specialists oversee the progress of several air medical missions as they progress along their planned tracks. Weather overlays allow them to look ahead and, if a ceiling or visibility problem arises, advise safe alternatives.
Allen summarizes Air Methods' history. "As more helicopter operators joined the air medical industry it was inevitable that there would be acquisition opportunities," he says. "In 1997, Air Methods brought Mercy Air—a California operator with a network of successful bases—into the family. And in 2000, Missouri-based ARCH Air Medical joined Air Methods." Allen describes these acquisitions as "significant momentum changers."
He continues, "In 2002, we acquired Rocky Mountain Helicopters—then one of the largest helicopter operators in the western US." He comments, "By some measures they were larger than us. It was a challenge, but we were all committed to complete the acquisition process successfully, and we did.
Acquisitions fuel growth
In 2007, the company acquired CJ Systems Aviation Group—the helicopter division of FSS Airholdings—in West Mifflin PA. CJ Systems' portfolio of air medical contracts in the eastern US was a complement to Air Methods' business.
An Air Methods Bell 429 approaches a freeway accident scene. The 429, with its roomy cabin, is known for its compact envelope and for affording better safety margins in tight landing zones.
Then, in 2011, Omniflight Helicopters, founded in 1962 by Dan Parker of the Parker Pen family, joined Air Methods, adding its own large network of air medical operations.
The company was now the largest air medical operator in the world, with more than 400 helicopters and 4000 employees, including 1500 pilots.
Last year, Air Methods acquired Sundance Helicopters—a Las Vegas NV-based air tour operator—adding its large fleet of Eurocopter EC130s to the company's growing number of this enhanced AStar development with an even larger cabin. "There was a larger purpose here," says Allen. "Pilot recruitment has become a challenge. There simply aren't enough pilots in the market who meet our minimum qualifications."
The career path for young pilots after they finish flight school is to become instructors and build their flight time, then join an air tour company. "Once they acquire the 2000 hrs total time and 1000 hrs turbine experience to meet our minimum experience standards, they can become potential candidates for Air Methods," notes Allen.
Senior VP Aviation Services Archie Gray discusses Air Methods' management of engine spares.
He continues, "As a result of all of these acquisitions, our fleet includes a number of different types of helicopter.
Our long-term goal is to standardize on 3 single-engine types—the AStar, the EC130 and the 407—and, in the twin-engine category, the EC135, Bell 429 and EC145. We have a number of these aircraft on order to facilitate that process."
Fixed-wing operations support the helicopter network in cases where patients require transport to specialized care facilities sometimes hundreds of miles away. The current fleet of twin-engine King Air turboprops is being replaced with Pilatus PC12s.
"Within community-based operations, the PC12 is preferred over twin turboprops," says Allen. "And the PC12 operates easily in and out of the many small airports we need to use to be effective. It's also the easiest to load patients with its huge rear door."