Our fleet

Helicopters

We have three EC135 aircraft. These small efficient aircraft ensure we can get to incidents quickly and land in smaller areas than a larger aircraft would require.

Space is limited on board, but we carry all the vital equipment we need. In total there are three North West Air Ambulance helicopters. Each has a crew of three, one pilot, and either one doctor and a Critical Care or HEMS paramedic, or two Critical Care or HEMS paramedics.

Each aircraft can carry one patient lying down on a stretcher. There’s also space for a small passenger should the patient be a child and need accompanying by a parent. Our helicopter has a cruising speed of approx. 158mph so can cover most areas of the North West in up to 25 minutes.

HEMS response vehicles

In 2018, we introduced HEMS response vehicles to our fleet.

We have now have four vehicles based at our Barton and Blackpool airbases. Our BMW X5s are used for nearby incidents, or where it is not suitable for an aircraft to land, such as city centres.

Our vehicles also mean we can continue our lifesaving work when the helicopters may be grounded due to bad weather.

They can also cover large distances subject to traffic conditions, meaning we can easily reach and treat patients where time is critical and could be the difference in saving a life.

 

Frequently asked questions

Our aircraft are designed to be able to fly at altitudes up to 10,000ft fully loaded, although due to the nature of our operations there is no reason for us to fly that high. We normally cruise at around 1000ft above ground level, which means we’re comfortably above most hazards like terrain, buildings, cranes, power lines, trees, but we generally aren’t in conflict with commercial air traffic. This also means we can quickly identify and land at the scene of the emergency. The highest terrain in our usual area of operations is in the southern Lake District where some of the peaks reach almost 3000ft in height.

We normally cruise between 120-130kts to get to the emergency scene, that’s the equivalent of around 150mph, meaning we’ll cover more than 2 miles a minute. If the weather permits, we can usually fly in a straight line directly to the scene, so our response times in the Manchester/Merseyside area usually average around 10 minutes from take-off to landing at the scene of the incident. Also, the benefit of a helicopter is in bad weather we can slow right down to a safer speed to allow us to navigate to the scene in poor visibility, rain, and snow.

Weight is a critical factor with helicopter operations so we have to find the balance between carrying enough fuel for any potential tasking and the ability to carry all our equipment, crew, and potential patients. We usually carry enough fuel to allow us to fly for 1 hour 30 minutes. This means we have a range of over 100 miles out and back without needing to refuel and generally allows us to respond to 2-3 separate incidents on a single tank of fuel.

When we take off from our bases in Barton and Blackpool, and also at all the hospital landing sites, we will always use a take-off profile that allows us to safely land back on to the helipad should we have an emergency and lose power from one of our engines during the take-off procedure. This will usually involve the pilot flying up and back from the helipad, allowing them to maintain visibility of the helipad during the take-off until they are at a safe altitude to fly away.

This differs slightly when taking off from the scene of the incident. Generally, the pilot will always try and fly a similar profile (up and back) to that used departing from the base. But because no two sites are the same it may be necessary to fly a slightly different profile. For example – in a large open field in the countryside, the safest take-off may just be to fly straight ahead as if it was a runway, or in a densely built-up urban area, the safest take-off path may be straight up vertically because of hazards behind the helicopter. Ultimately the wind strength and direction and the safety of the helicopter, aircrew, the public and public property are paramount in selecting the best take-off profile.

This is one of the most difficult parts of the HEMS mission, finding a suitable and above all safe landing site at the scene of the incident. Each mission varies and we could find ourselves responding to an incident right in the heart of the city, where just finding somewhere big enough to land can be a challenge, particularly with all the hazards of power lines, buildings, cranes, debris, and so on.

Then another task could see us flying into the hills where high winds, turbulence, and bad weather, not to mention sloping or boggy ground, pose a whole different set of challenges. The crew will assess the scene en route to the incident, studying our digital maps in the cockpit to try and identify a suitable space, but the majority of the work is done during the aerial reconnaissance overhead the scene. Once we’re established at the scene we will circle around at a safe height, working as a crew to identify a suitable landing site and check for any hazards, before confirming a safe flight path and actually approaching to land. Ultimately the smallest landing site we can land in is 25m x 25m (double this for night operations), which is twice the size of the helicopter, and the maximum slope the helicopter can handle is an incline of 14 degrees.

Once we’ve safely arrived at the scene we then need to think about where the patient is going. Fortunately, most of the major hospitals in the area have primary helipads associated with their emergency departments so we can usually land right outside the front door for rapid onward transportation of the patient into hospital care. Now we’re extremely fortunate and we can even land on the roof of Manchester Royal Infirmary/Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital, with their brand new rooftop helipad, which opened in May 2021. Sometimes the important bit is delivering our specialist Doctors, HEMS Paramedics, and their equipment to the patient and they will then travel by road to the hospital with the patient. In these circumstances, the pilot will usually fly the helicopter solo to the hospital to reform as a crew once they have finished their handover to the hospital staff and allow them to be immediately available for further tasking.

Our aircraft are extremely robust machines, capable of flying in most weather conditions, and because of the critical medical nature of HEMS missions, we have special permissions from the Civil Aviation Authority to fly in worse weather conditions than other aircraft. During daytime hours we can generally fly in conditions where the visibility is as low as 1500m and the cloud ceiling is as low as 500ft above the ground. For nighttime operations, this increases to 3km visibility and 1200ft cloud ceilings.

If conditions deteriorate below these minima our options are either to try and divert around areas of poor weather, potentially go higher and fly in the clouds, what’s known as flying IFR or ‘on instruments’, or if the weather is just too bad then we will have to abort the mission, for to continue would be so dangerous that the safety of the aircraft and crew would be put in jeopardy.

Generally, our aircraft cover is during daylight hours only. However in the winter months, it is not uncommon for us to fly to the scene of an incident towards the end of the day in daylight, but to then have to depart the scene or hospital after darkness has fallen and recover back to base. We can fly to a pre-approved lit sight but we do not attend HEMS missions at night.

Did you know?

50%

of all missions are funded by our lifesaving Lift Off Lotto.

Did you know?

£100

could buy a surgical airway kit, crucial in life-threatening situations, such as airway obstruction or facial trauma

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