Safety for staff, patients top priority for medical helicopter crews when navigating inclement weather

Premier Health's CareFlight Air and Mobile medical helicopter. PROVIDED/PREMIER HEALTH
Premier Health's CareFlight Air and Mobile medical helicopter. PROVIDED/PREMIER HEALTH

Credit: Wm Jones

Credit: Wm Jones

The number one priority before a medical helicopter takes off in inclement weather is safety.

Premier Health’s CareFlight Air and Mobile and UC Health’s Air Care are the primary medical helicopters for the Butler and Warren county areas, and there are a number of protocols before a flight takes off.

“We don’t get paid to fly, we get paid to make good decisions,” said Matt Johnson, a Butler County-based pilot for Air Care. “We’re professional pilots, we’re professional decision-makers.”

CareFlight, which has been around since 1983, and Air Care, which has been around since 1984, each has more than 100 employees. Both fly tens of thousands of miles to, collectively, complete thousands of flights each year.

The biggest danger for medical helicopters is flying in weather where freezing rain, icing, or even wet snow can adhere to the aircraft. It’s also illegal to fly a medical helicopter in icy conditions. According to an article on LifeFlightEagle.org, “When ice forms on rotor blades or airplane wings, they lose their ability to provide lift, and the aircraft can no longer maintain flight. The additional weight of ice freezing on the fuselage of an aircraft compounds this problem.”

“This time of year presents challenges like any season,” said Johnson.

Fixed-wing aircraft are equipped with anti-icing equipment that allows them to fly in icy weather, Johnson and Brian Bates, Premier Health, CareFlight’s outreach manager and flight nurse.

While safety is a priority one for helicopter crews, Bates said “it’s really about preparation and planning for the unknown event.”

Spring and summer bring issues with popup thunderstorms, and winter brings sleet, freezing rain and popup snowsqualls, said Johnson, and Bates.

“Something like a rain shower doesn’t preclude us from flying,” said Johnson. “We can generally navigate around (rain showers), whereas (large weather fronts) may ground us for a while because of a line of thunderstorms. There’s really a lot that goes into it, the decision-making process. This time of year, the temperatures play a big part of it because icing and helicopters do not mix. We don’t fly in icy conditions.”

Most of the medical helicopter runs (about two-thirds for each system) are flying patients between hospitals, Johnson and Bates said.

Bates said they’re constantly evaluating and re-evaluating weather safety situations, and if they need to land to find an alternate route or transport with the mobile unit.

“We don’t skirt weather, we don’t scud run (beat the weather) because that usually leads to a dangerous situation,” said Bates. “It doesn’t do the patient or our crews any good to put anyone in jeopardy.”

FACTS & FIGURES

CareFlight Air & Mobile

  • 4 Dauphin helicopters, based at 5 locations across the region
  • 5 ground Mobile Intensive Care Units (MICU), based at hospitals across the region
  • A team of more than 100 people dedicated to the health and safety of those who need immediate medical care and swift transport

Air Care and Mobile Care

  • In nearly 4 decades, the agency has had 30,000 accident-free flight missions and more than 100,000 patient transports by ground.
  • Uses two state-of-the-art EC 145 helicopters
  • Annually, more than 700 hours and nearly 60,000 miles are flown, and more than 4,800 hours and 160,000 miles are driven.

Sources: Premier Health and UC Health

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