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By Jenna Shepard - There are two main threats to EMS helicopter pilots – weather and darkness, but this really shouldn’t come as a surprise. In 1988, the National Transportation Safety Board investigated 59 helicopter emergency medical services accidents and concluded that low visibility, often caused by poor weather conditions accounted for 61% of all crashes. Since then, little has changed.Although the commercial aviation industry requires that an aircraft be outfitted with everything from weather tracking technologies like onboard radar and GPS to collision avoidance tools, these same requirements are not made of the medical helicopter industry. Furthermore, at a time when air medical companies are being scrutinized due to the sheer number of EMS helicopter crashes and aAEL Helicopter lack of critical onboard technologies not yet mandated by the FAA, one company is making big strides in the right direction by focusing on weather safety.

Air Evac Lifeteam has had onboard weather since 2007. The company, which is the largest independently owned and operated air medical service provider in the United States, operates the world’s largest fleet of over 100 Bell 206 Long Ranger helicopters – all equipped with XM WX Satellite Weather, a data subscription service that delivers near real-time weather information to the cockpit.

(Photo courtesy of Mark Mennie/Air Evac Lifeteam)

Mounted in the pilot’s line of sight, Garmin’s GPSMAP 396 displays XM Weather’s near real-time data like NEXRAD radar, winds aloft and METARs. "Having XM Weather onboard plays a big part in my decision making," says Ron Whitney, Base Pilot Supervisor for Air Evac Lifeteam’s Shoals based aircraft. "It does me no good to get en route and then run into a weather problem -- all that does is delay the patient’s care, and that’s the last thing I want to do."

Fatal accidents have become all too common in the million dollar air-medical business. The pressure for crews to respond quickly combined with poor flight conditions like darkness and inclement weather has proven to be a deadly combination.

Since more than half of fatal crashes occur at night, Air Evac Lifeteam has implemented a Night Vision Goggle program with 100% of the fleet projected to be operational by July 2010, which help their pilots to avoid natural and manmade obstacles. Additionally, the company utilizes five dedicated flight simulators as part of its routine training program.

Available 24 hours a day, Air Evac’s crew consists of a pilot, a nurse and a paramedic. Virtually a flying ICU, crews respond to motor vehicle accidents, heart attacks, farm accidents and other traumatic injuries, and can administer a number of life saving procedures and treatments.

In a business that is literally a race against time, a little help from the wind can go a long way. By utilizing XM Weather’s Winds Aloft data product, which is viewable by altitude, Whitney can get his patients to their destinations sooner. "If I can shave 10 minutes off of a flight by utilizing this wind data, that’s huge," he said.

Many in the medical field refer to something known as the "Golden Hour," which is the first hour after a person is injured or at the onset of a medical illness. Studies prove that a patient’s chances of recovery are much greater if the patient can receive medical attention within the first hour. Air Evac Lifeteam’s quick response times quite often give patients that opportunity at the scene and while en route. Equipped with state-of-the-art medical equipment, Air Evac Lifeteam can transport a patient in less than half the time it would take if driven by ambulance.

Whitney can’t run the risk of flying a patient toward a particular hospital and then turning around because weather conditions are so poor that he can’t land the aircraft. As a result, he uses XM Weather’s data to determine which hospital has the most favorable weather conditions and takes the patient there. "Many times the weather actually makes my decision as to which hospital the patient needs to go to," said Whitney.

XM Weather has proven itself time and again to Whitney. He recalled flying an EMS flight from Demopolis, Alabama to Mobile, Alabama about two years ago when the weather ahead appeared to be getting somewhat interesting. If you were to draw a line between his departure point and his destination it would have become quite obvious that there was not much between the two, actually there was nothing between the two. Although Whitney’s aircraft is tracked by satellites at all times, this particular route took him out of radio range, so there was no "call dispatch" option. "Using XM Weather on the Garmin GPSMAP 396, I was able to determine that the weather in Mobile was quickly deteriorating, and that I had better come up with a Plan B," Whitney said. Having the information directly in front of him allowed him to select from several alternate destinations and choose one within his fuel range. Confirming with the medical crew, he chose an alternate hospital, secured the right level of care for the patient, and got it done safely.

Having NEXRAD radar came in handy for Whitney last month on a return trip from Huntsville to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Weather reports were clear when Whitney took off, but midway through the flight his Garmin showed rain showers and deteriorating weather conditions. Wearing his night vision goggles, Whitney’s visibility was down to three miles. However utilizing the data from XM, Whitney diverged south towards the Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant and made the return trip successfully. "The picture I was seeing from XM was exactly what I ran into," says Whitney.

The XM Weather service was formed out of a partnership between WxWorx, an affiliate of Baron Services and XM Radio back in 2003. Founded by pilots and backed by one of the nation’s most respected weather companies, WxWorx is the data provider for the XM WX service and supplies hardware and software solutions for the aviation industry. At this time, XM Weather technology comes standard with over 90% of general aviation aircraft being manufactured with XM WX as standard or standard option.

Driven by a "patient first" orientation, Air Evac Lifeteam primarily focuses on the medically underserved areas of rural America. The company currently operates in 14 states including: Alabama, Arkansas, Illinois, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Texas. Since its founding in 1985, the company has safely transported over 200,000 patients.

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