The development of Helicopter EMS (HEMS) has come a long way since the early days of air-medical transport during the conflicts in Korea and Vietnam, which paved the way for civilian HEMS operations. While the principle of moving a patient rapidly from Point A to Point B to access medical care remains, many of today’s HEMS aircraft act more like ‘flying ICUs’ – taking critical care directly to the patient.
Leonardo has a strong heritage in the EMS sector and our helicopters are deployed worldwide in support of EMS and SAR operations. In the civil/parapublic market, there are more than 500 helicopters in operation in over 40 countries stretching from the United States to Europe and across Asia.
AW169’s unrivalled flexibility
Our latest generation AW169 light-intermediate twin, is an example of how we are designing products to meet the evolving requirement of the HEMS community. Of the more than 150 AW169s in operation, more than a third are performing EMS missions. The AW169 offers greater power and range than competing types and its large, regular-shaped cabin means that the helicopter can transport up to two patients, five medical personnel as well as critical care equipment. The layout also offers 360o access to the patient.
“The key to the AW169 is flexibility,” says Leonardo Helicopters HEMS Specialist Sam Schaab. “It’s the only helicopter in its category with such a large cabin, which makes it ideal for operators who want to transport specialist teams. The modular design also means that it can be quickly reconfigured for different mission profiles.”
Another unique feature of the aircraft is APU-mode that enables the cabin to stay ‘power on’ with rotors stopped. “APU-mode is a game-changer because it gives the crew full environmental control, especially lighting for night operations and the ability to keep the cabin at a comfortable ambient temperature,” says Schaab. “This is a capability that sets the AW169 apart from any competitors in its class.”
Supporting operators in the US
The AW169 has a growing presence in the US EMS market, having entered service in 2019 with the delivery of three aircraft to Travis County, Texas. STAR Flight, Travis County’s air ambulance operator, is the only 24/7 helicopter EMS provider in Texas that performs highly specialised rescues. These include still and swift water rescue, search and rescue, high angle rescue, fire suppression and law enforcement support. The fleet also transports neo-natal, paediatric ICU and high-risk obstetrics medical teams and patients.
“The work of the AW169s in service with Travis County is an example of the demanding mission profiles that the AW169 is performing,” says Schaab. “We are seeing increasing interest in the helicopter from operators in the US market with more deliveries due in the second half of 2023.”
Advances in medical care
One of the biggest challenges for helicopter manufacturers is how to keep pace with the rapid advances in medical techniques that have taken place in recent years, including the advent of telemedicine – the ability to bring remote medical expertise to the patient.
Schaab comments: “If we rewind even 10 years, concepts such as ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation) as a lifesaving intervention on board the helicopter would have been unthinkable. From a Leonardo Helicopters perspective, we cannot anticipate every medical innovation, so it is really about retaining flexibility – developing helicopters with cabin space that is adaptable as the needs of operators change over time. That is the beauty of the AW169.”
“Technology is one aspect, but we know from operators the vital importance of training and support. This is why we continue to invest in training facilities in the US and worldwide and we are proud to have been voted number one for aftersales product support in the Pro Pilot survey for five consecutive years.”
Schaab also underlines Leonardo’s commitment to be more than a provider of helicopters: “HEMS operations are all about teamwork – bringing together pilots, cabin crew, dispatchers, first responders and many others. We are proud to play our part as one piece of that team and we’ll continue to engage with the HEMS community to understand how we can support them in the best possible way.”
Meanwhile, the AW169 was a key focal point for the Leonardo Helicopters Korea Seminar 2023, which took place in the South Korean capital Seoul in June.
The two-day event brought together hundreds of representatives from Korean operators and was the ideal opportunity for us to share updates on the AW169, AW139 and AW189 helicopter types, as well as developments in support services and training. The Leonardo fleet in-country numbers more than 60 helicopters and the event underlined our continued commitment to provide world-class products and support to the operator community.