Wiltshire Air Ambulance makes history with new helicopter

Photo: Chris Watkins Media.

Photo: Chris Watkins Media.

Wiltshire Air Ambulance (WAA) made aviation history last month when the charity’s new helicopter flew into the county.

The helicopter, a Bell 429, is the first to operate as an air ambulance in the UK. It was built in Mirabel, Canada, and is one of the most advanced light twin helicopters ever developed. It has a top speed of 156 knots (180mph) and has been fitted out with the most recent Aerolite equipment to meet the highest helicopter emergency medical service (HEMS) specification.

The colour scheme of the new air ambulance is yellow and the distinctive Wiltshire green. On the belly of the helicopter is a distinctive ‘W’ representing Wiltshire.

From January 2015 WAA will operate its own helicopter as its 24-year partnership with Wiltshire Police for the joint helicopter comes to an end in December 2014, when the force joins the National Police Air Service.

The new helicopter will be leased from and operated by Heli Charter, Bell’s UK agent, based in Manston, Kent. Under the ten-year contract there is the option for a replacement helicopter to be provided after five years.

Operating its own helicopter means the charity will need to raise £2.5m a year to keep the helicopter flying.

Sebastien Moulin, Regional Manager Europe for Bell Helicopter, said, “Bell Helicopter is extremely proud and excited to introduce the first Bell 429 into the UK HEMS community for Wiltshire Air Ambulance. Our first mission is to provide outstanding service and support to make sure the people of Wiltshire will have peace of mind knowing they are backed by an industry leading aircraft committed to serving their needs.

“With a spacious interior and advanced safety features, the aircraft will help support a variety of crucial missions and provide an increased level of care on behalf of the people of Wiltshire.”

The crew on the air ambulance will be a pilot and two paramedics. A doctor will fly with a paramedic on occasions. Paramedics will continue to be provided by South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust (SWASFT). All of the paramedics have Critical Care Skills and have all worked on Wiltshire Air Ambulance previously.

Ken Wenman, Chief Executive of SWASFT, said, “I am delighted that SWASFT is able to continue its longstanding association with the Wiltshire Air Ambulance. Our crews on board the helicopter work tirelessly to provide seriously injured and ill patients across the county of Wiltshire and surrounding areas with the best possible care. This new helicopter will undoubtedly provide a benefit to patient care as well as providing the crews with a vehicle that is top of its class.”

Training for the pilots and paramedics has already begun and the air ambulance is due to start operating on 1 January 2015.

The air ambulance will fly up to 19 hours a day. Initially it will operate in the daytime with night flying commencing in Spring 2015. This is to allow the pilots to accumulate experience with the aircraft and operating area while at the same time training for night flying.

The air ambulance will operate from a hangar at Wiltshire Police Headquarters, Devizes, until the charity has found a suitable site to build a permanent home and visitor centre. A shortlist of potential sites are being actively considered and it is hoped that a new base could be operational in two to three years.