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Hospital Helicopter Service Gets An Upgrade

VPR/Charlotte Albright

Getting airlifted to a hospital can make the difference between life and death, yet medivac helicopters are often grounded by poor visibility.

A new navigation system for the helicopter service linking many of the state’s hospitals has made it safer for pilots to accept missions in less than ideal weather.  

The Dartmouth Hitchcock Advance Response Team—or DHART—has a colorful new map in the hanger beside the hospital. It shows routes that pilots will now take whenever possible.

They used to just set their own courses when they airlifted patients to and from about 30 hospitals in Vermont and New Hampshire.   

For the first time, these pre-planned routes and altitudes are on file with air traffic controllers. Plus, new instruments and training are allowing the medivac pilots to accept missions even when weather and visibility are not ideal—something they did not do when they had only their own vision and clear skies  to rely on. Jim Erdman, DHART’s Program Business Manager, says this is a way to improve safety while adding flights.

“So it does not sound very safe to fly in weather conditions that limit visibility but in fact I can tell you in fact it is much safer,” Erdman said, about the new system.

Erdman says the new route plan and the navigational instruments bring the medivac service up to the same standard already set by the FAA for commercial airlines.  

“Every commercial airline flight that you’ve been on is flying under instrument flight rules and commercial airlines have had a structure built for themselves at 30,000 feet where commercial airliners fly. What we’ve done is replicated that sort of infrastructure so that we can use our instrument flight rules at 3,000 foot level instead which is where helicopters fly when they are flying when they are doing emergency medical services missions,” he explained.

Erdman says the new system will  mean some patients needing emergency treatment  will be able to get to hospitals much faster in bad weather than if they had to be transported by an ambulance.  And those minutes can count. Just ask Katie Latulip, a dental hygienist who was airlifted to Dartmouth Hitchcock after she was kicked by a horse.

“I had a stage four liver laceration that typically a patient doesn’t survive from,” she said.

Especially if the patient doesn’t get speedy surgery. But Latulip didn’t need surgery when she got to the hospital because she was stabilized by the nurses on board the DHART helicopter.

On a recent sunny day DHART pilot Jim Clark invited VPR for a ride, to show the new instruments.

If this had been a cloudier or even stormier day, Clark might not have been so willing to leave the heli-pad. Even under the new rules, he says he is still extremely cautious, and tells other pilots to refuse missions when they question their safety. But he says he is happy the new system may allow them to say yes when they might once have said no.

“So it’s a nice operational tool but I view it primarily as a safety device,” Clark said.

Suddenly, he got a call to rescue a patient in Springfield.

So the demo was over-- and off he went.   

DHART expects the new navigation plan to add 150 trips to the 1,500 hundred it already makes per year. Those additional fees, paid by patients or insurers, are expected to mostly cover the cost of upgrading the system.  DHART is not the only medivac service in Vermont, but so far, it claims to be the only one that uses the new instrument flight routes and rules.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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