BUFFALO — Mercy Flight, Inc. has a $100,000 reward it can use to enable its helicopter air ambulances to provide lifesaving transportation even in inclement weather.
Pilots will be able to rely on instrument readings rather than just visual cues, reducing travel time and increasing positive patient outcomes.
Mercy Flight plans to implement an Instrument Flight Rules (IFR) approach system in Western New York. During the project, IFR approach systems will be installed at four strategic locations: Wyoming County Community Hospital in Warsaw, Medina Memorial Hospital in Medina, Bertrand Chaffee Hospital in Springville, and Olean General Hospital in Olean.
The Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo’s 21st Century Fund, which announced the award, said Mercy Flight would be able to create intercept points so that if someone within approximately 15 miles of each location of approaching IFR suffers from a traumatic injury or illness, he may be able to fly towards them when weather conditions might have previously prevented him. The service area will include rural areas of Wyoming, Orleans, Cattaraugus and southern Erie counties, serving more than 500,000 residents.
Scott Wooton, executive vice president of Mercy Flight, said Mercy Flight has provided estimates for additional calls it may be able to respond based on information gathered from other similar operations in other locations.
“For us, that could mean 50 more patients (per year) than we are able to serve and save. It may vary,” he said. “Being adjacent to the Great Lakes, we obviously get a lot of precipitation, a lot of cloud cover, a lot of fog.”
Wooten said there are many variables at play with the weather.
“The big change for us is going to be with visibility. “It’s all based on GPS-like technology,” he said of the IFR system. “They (the pilots) can be completely surrounded by cloud, not be able to see out of the cockpit, and still know they’re on a safe flight pattern because they’re on a pre-determined path. Everything is pre-arranged and approved by the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration). This path they follow will bring them to their destination safely.
How often are air ambulances currently grounded in bad weather when the IFR system would make a difference?
“It’s a fairly common phenomenon. This is partly due to our geography. Icing can also prevent us from reacting,” Wooton said.
Wooton said if it’s above freezing at ground level, but below freezing at altitude, that’s when moisture condenses on the plane and then freezes, forming ice.
He said that unfortunately, the IFR improvement will not be able to solve an icing problem and Mercy Flight will not be able to respond to a call. There will still be times when planes are grounded.
Mercy Flight’s executive vice president said thunder and lightning is another activity through which a pilot cannot fly a helicopter.
Still, Wooton said, fire units or hospitals that need a response from Mercy Flight shouldn’t just assume that Mercy Flight won’t fly because of the current weather.
“It’s really our users or our customers, which means that fire departments who ask us to go to the scene or hospitals who ask us to move patients from one hospital to another, should always check with us to see (about an answer), if there is a need,” he said.
If Mercy Flight can’t fly even after being IFR, a ground ambulance remains the best option for a response, Wooton said.
“We always try to use our flight doctor and our flight nurse … in the ground ambulance. An example might be a patient at UMMC who needs to be quickly transported to Strong Memorial…” he said. “We can use our ambulance and our flight crew. Our flight nurse is capable of certain interventions that you would not get from a typical land ambulance service.
Wooton said it’s a fairly quick process to complete IFR certification. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) certification schedule is also a consideration, he said.
“We expect to receive those funds, I would estimate, maybe within about 30 days,” he said. “A company called Hughes-Aerospace (Corporation) is mapping the four sites. They are using this technology to develop these IFR approach and departure points,” he said. “Once they complete their stage of the process, it all goes to the FAA for FAA certification. We hope that the whole process, ideally, will be completed this fall.