Three new maize-and-blue helicopters will soon be saving lives in the air above the Great Lakes states, and speeding patients toward advanced care at the University of Michigan Health System’s hospitals. The arrival of three new American Eurocopter 155 helicopters marks the beginning of a new era for the 29-year-old U-M Survival Flight program, which was the first medical flight service in Michigan. The first one entered service Friday afternoon.
The Health System chose the new aircraft to replace three Bell 430 helicopters that have been icons since 1998. More than 10,000 critically ill and injured patients and donated organs for transplant have passed through their cabin doors, each flight carrying a unique story of pain and hope. Together, they have flown the distance to the moon and back several times.
Now, Survival Flight will be able to travel further, faster and more quietly, using the first EC155s to be put into emergency medical service in the U.S. They will enhance the Health System’s ability to provide advanced, high quality and safe care to patients from across the state, region and nation in partnership with other institutions.
The new helicopters are equipped with advanced equipment and safety features, including the ability to fly in low-visibility conditions. They have nearly 50 percent more cabin space for nurses and patients, an all-glass cockpit and a 500-mile range allows them to fly as far as Syracuse, N.Y., or Louisville, Ky. without refueling.
Their five-blade main rotors and shrouded Fenestron tail rotors reduce vibration and noise, providing a smooth ride at high speeds. A much shorter warm-up time shaves critical minutes from both ends of flights, as does a faster cruising speed.
“We’re excited about the helicopters’ increased capabilities and safety features, but it’s also important to remember that the heart of Survival Flight will remain the same, and by that I mean our dedicated team of highly skilled fight nurses, pilots, mechanics and communications specialists,” says Mark Lowell, M.D., Survival Flight’s medical director.
“Survival Flight is about more than just getting a really sick patient from point A to point B,” he adds. “It’s about the highly specialized care the patient receives before, during and after transport.”
Tony Denton, executive director of University Hospitals and chief operating officer of the U-M Hospitals and Health Centers, says the new helicopters are part of the Health System’s effort to create the ideal patient care experience including advanced care provided with the utmost attention to safety. “The rapid transport of acutely ill and complex patients to U-M hospitals gives every Michigander, and residents of all the Great Lakes states, timely access to sophisticated, compassionate and safe care for children and adults. We are eager to offer this latest technology to those in need,” he says.
Survival Flight helicopters are essentially mobile trauma centers and intensive care units, complete with state-of-the-art lifesaving technology and the latest navigational equipment that allows them to fly safely in all types of weather.
During transports, the helicopters are staffed by two flight nurses, who are also licensed as paramedics. Survival Flight is the only health care provider in the state to require this high standard of dual certification. The 21 full-time nurses are cross-trained to treat everyone from newborns to geriatric patients.
“We started the process of looking for a replacement for the 430s back in 2009,” says Denise Landis, R.N., the program’s critical care and transport manager. “We carefully reviewed possible replacements to find the one that would best meet the program’s needs today and in coming years.”
Peter Forster, administrator for the U-M Department of Emergency Medicine, notes, “We are really excited about entering our 30th year of service with these fourth-generation helicopters, and continuing to strive to be the leaders and best in air medical service.”
Two helicopters are kept in active service at all times and the third serves as a backup. The 21 medical staff and 10 communications staff are UMHS employees. The U-M-leased aircraft are based at Ann Arbor Airport and flown and maintained by 11 pilots and six mechanics who work for U-M’s aviation partner, Pentastar Aviation, based in Waterford, MI. UMHS has three helipads near University Hospital, and one helistop on the roof of the new C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital and Von Voigtlander Women’s Hospital.
A base at the Livingston County Airport in Howell -- where one helicopter and its crew are stationed at all times -- will soon be expanded with a new hangar that will be built starting this week.
The new helicopters’ huge range means northern Michigan residents will have faster access to advanced care. In the past, picking up a patient in the Upper Peninsula was usually done with Survival Flight’s Citation Encore fixed-wing or jet plane, which requires additional time because patients must be transported to and from an airport by ground.
Now, the greater range of the EC155s will allow them to pick up patients as far away as Marquette without having to refuel and bring them directly to Ann Arbor or other destinations. They also have clearance to fly to Canada, and can reach Toronto and beyond.
Once the EC155s were selected, the aircraft were transported to Metro Aviation in Shreveport, La., where the interiors were outfitted for advanced medical care and the exteriors painted with a new design in U-M’s classic colors.
The program’s mechanics received in-depth training at Eurocopter’s headquarters in Texas, while pilots traveled to France for the two-week flight simulation school in addition to a 12-day ground school and have been certified by the Federal Aviation Administration. The helicopters arrived in Michigan in June and pilots, mechanics, flight nurses and specialty care teams all received training.
Compared to other models that were considered, a lower weight allows access to more helipads and the EC155s have a track record for reduced maintenance costs and less down time, potentially saving hundreds of thousand dollars per year.
“The additional space and seating arrangement in the new helicopters is going to make it easier for flight nurses to stabilize patients,” says chief flight nurse Donna Robinson. “And their increased speed is going to help us reduce the time it takes to get a patient to the treatment they need.”
As air medical transport programs multiply, Survival Flight’s experience and dedication to the highest standards of care make a difference, says Lowell, who notes the program’s vision statement is to “be the benchmark” everyone else is trying to reach.