Heroes of the skies break the curse of the observer

The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance comes in to land
The Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance comes in to land

THE phrase ‘the fourth emergency service’ is applied to everyone from insurance firms to road side rescue companies.

GAVIN MOORE spent a day with the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Aior Ambulance to see how they dealt with real emergencies.

THE airborne doctors and paramedics of the air ambulance offer something quite unique.

Each unit saves hundreds of lives each year at a cost of £1.7 million.

No small sum, but when you consider what that entails it is well worth the money; the lease of a high spec aircraft, its maintenance and fuelling, the salary of a clutch of highly experienced pilots.

Currently medical staff are funded by the health authority they are seconded from.

But national and international aviation authorities consider the air ambulance’s life saving function so essential it is licensed to do things which in other circumstances would earn a pilot a prison sentence – such as flying without a flight plan and landing in built up areas.

At a time when public services cope with a funding crisis, not least of all the land ambulance, I don’t find a story of cuts threatening the Warwickshire & Northamptonshire Air Ambulance (WNAA).

That is because it is not the fourth state funded emergency service. It is a charity funded entirely by the generosity of those who think it’s a good idea, and those who can still hold a loved one tight because a helicopter can cut journey times by a thousand per cent.

After a signal is sent to medical centres around the region notifying them the WNAA, based at Coventry Airport, is ready for duty, paramedics Richard Apps and Jane Cresswell take a daily briefing from pilot, Captain Richard Craske.

He runs through the hospitals ready to take patients and navigation obstacles, whether that be cranes in Birmingham or a request to avoid rare horses in woods near Leamington Spa. A giant map on the wall at the headquarters of Helimed53, the call sign for the unit, has a piece of string with on a pulley system and magnet which calculates the journey times in a small moment. My 50 minute drive from Brackley to Conventry that morning would have taken seven minutes in the 200mph Augusta 190E helicopter.

Two big circles at the very bottom of the map remind the crew of high masts at Croughton and Turweston Airfield, while a big H shows them to expect air craft over the Silverstone Circuit.

Someone asks me whether I have heard of the curse of the observer. Since I’m wearing a high-vis vest with the word observer on my back I’m keen to find out. I’m told when ever someone comes to observe the radios go silent and it ends in an uneventful day.

And so it seems to be proving as we wait four hours until our first call.

But eventually it arrives, and we board the million pound machine, as I hear it referred to. The helicopter can go from a complete stand still to lift off in 45 seconds, but it often takes longer to gather enough information to brief the pilot en-route.

Mr Craske said: “It is exciting when I get to the helicopter as I don’t know where I’m going.”

Under aviation laws very few aircraft get to fly around and land anywhere. Helimed53’s life saving function allows it to set off with no flight plan. As we take off Mr Craske has little more than a compass heading but a well oiled procedure unfolds as paramedics communicate with control rooms and land ambulance crews, while he talks to air traffic control. All scan the sky constantly for other low flying aircraft.

“It is exciting,” he adds, “We’re making dynamic risk assessments from the time we arrive until we’ve got rotors off.”

It emerges we are on the way to a woman in Grendon, just south of Northampton, who has been injured by a horse.

On approach Mr Craske makes a last minute decision to abort his landing and chooses another field. He later explains how he had seen spooked horses in the field.

When we finally get to the barn Richard Apps qrules out any injuries which would require immediate transferral to hospital and we wait for a land ambulance. Without its own landing pad flying to Northampton General Hospital would have meant waiting at the other end for an ambulance anyway.

We depart Grendon and head to Sywell Aerodrome for refuelling, after which we head back to Coventry. But halfway there we are diverted to Leamington Spa to what I hear over the radio is a seven-year-old boy with a head injury.

We land in the school field and are ushered into the staff room. The boy had wondered off, climbed a tree and hit his head after falling nine feet. I am presented with my most distressing moment of the day, seeing the anguish and fear in the eyes of the boy’s mother as he is packed into the helicopter.

I give up my observers seat so his mother can travel to Birmingham Children’s Hospital with him. I am left in the hands of a land ambulance crew and transported back to the airport by car. Later I find out 14 police officers are required to close off the high rise area around the Birmingham hospital so Helimed53 can land.

I arrive back at Conventry shortly followed by the helicopter. As I watch it land I see fuelling crews rushing around. I’m grabbed by the sleve and told they have received another call.

A brief moment later and we are airbourne again; this time won our way to a 26-year-old man in Nuneaton who has fallen off his bicycle and has a suspected broken ankle. We land on a thin slither of land between trees and a railway line. Land crews already on scene decide they can not transfer him to their ambulance and we take off for Walsgrave Hospital. Walsgrave has its own helipad, but we must circle overhead while security staff shut off access roads around the hospital.

Over the seven years Mr Craske has flown Helimed53 he has attended countless medical incidents. The experience allows them all to operate in high stress situations with a calm detachment. But meeting grateful patients in the cold light of day can be just as challenging.

Mr Craske said: “You don’t often find out the outcome, maybe the big ones. Sometimes they come back and say thank you. That can be very emotional. I’ve had three or four, 30 to 50-year-old men come in here and cry their eyes out. One guy two years later because it took him so long to recover.

“It’s one of the things which makes this job so special.”

Paramedic Mr Apps joined the ambulance service as a 17-year-old cadet. The 19 years of experience he has gathered since then shows in his confident gait; a confidence which transfers to his patients and other medical professionals.

He said: “No matter what anyone says the flying is an attraction. You get to fly around all day dealing with some of the sickest patients. You’re more likely to be dealing with most challenging patients and that experience increases your knowledge.”

Jane Cresswell said: “I’m not an excitable person but I do get excited about it. I like to do it properly and I aim for clinical excellence which is what I’m here for. I worked on the roads for 12 years and this is the next stage really.”

There are only five volunteers raising money for the WNAA in south Northants.

District fundraiser Tracy Grunwell said more help is always needed and added: “We’re pushing now for the summer fundraising season building up to Air Ambulance week in September.”

Mrs Grunwell encouraged people to plan raffles, coffee morning and raffles for the week.

To volunteer or to find out how to support the WNAA contact Mrs Grunwell at tracy@wnaa.co.uk or on 07825 634103.