Powerful new breed of U-M Survival Flight helicopters takes to the skies
Editor's note: The location of the University of Michigan Health System's jet has been corrected in this article.
Survival Flight nurse John Bullen of Ann Arbor has been a part of the University of Michigan Health System's program since its inception with a single aircraft in 1983 to a fleet of state-of-the-art helicopters.
Friday, Bullen watched as the latest metamorphosis of helicopter-turned-ambulance took to the skies from the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport in Pittsfield Township - and his focus was still the same: the patients.
"Every time you think you've transported the sickest patient you could ever imagine, you come back in a week and there's a patient who's even sicker, or a new device that improves your ability to care for those patients," Bullen said. "Some of our patients actually do quite well. It's pretty gratifying to see someone who benefits from our care and from the care provided at the university, and goes home and leads a productive life."
With wolverine nose caps and glossy maize-and-blue paint, three new helicopters are readying to enter service for U-M’s Survival Flight.
As happens now, one will be stationed at the pad outside UMHS, one will be in the hangar at the airport in Ann Arbor and one will be at the Livingston County Airport -- where crews are set to break ground this week on a new hangar for U-M's helicopter and plane.
Jeffrey Smith | AnnArbor.com
U-M has used three Bell 430 helicopters since 1998.
The Eurocopter can carry about 1,500 more pounds than the Bell 430, and has a 50 percent increase of cubic feet in cabin volume. The new chopper can also go about 90 miles further than the previous range of 406 miles.
Crew capacity will be expanded from four pilots and nurses to six. The choppers will have the ability to carry two patients if necessary, which Bullen said was a rare occurrence.
Compared with the new models, the Bell 430 helicopters feel much smaller inside - especially in terms of headroom - and only give nurses access to the patient from one side, as the gurney is placed on the left side of the aircraft right next to the door.
The layout of the interior of the helicopter was designed by the Survival Flight staff -- an effort coordinated by Ben Tung, flight nurse of 25 years.
The cabins of the new helicopters are about two feet wider than the current models in use. The arrangements of the three seats around the gurney, which is in the middle of the cabin, will give nurses 360-degree access to the patient at all times.
The most important new feature was the amount of space for the crew and patients, Bullen said.
“Inches rather than feet is a lot in the aircraft,” Tung said.
About 10 percent to 12 percent of the calls the Survival Flight is dispatched on are scene calls to pick up patients injured in accidents, said Dr. Mark J. Lowell, medical director of the program.
The majority of the flights transport critically ill patients from area hospitals to the U-M hospitals in Ann Arbor - meaning many patients must be moved with a slew of support devices keeping them alive.
“Everybody is fascinated by the hardware, but it’s really about the nurses and doctors,” Lowell said.
A staff of 21 flight nurses rotates on 12-hour shifts for three or four days a week. Each has extensive training as both registered nurses and paramedics, as well as a multitude of certifications necessary to care for a spectrum of patients.
If a call comes in at 10 minutes to the end of a shift, the crew has to take off again.
“You never know when you’re going to get off,” said Morgan Cornell, flight nurse.
The ride is smoother than an ambulance, as “there are no potholes in the air,” he said. A separate, contracted staff of pilots and mechanics keep the helicopters in tip-top shape.
Cornell is one of the newest additions to the Survival Flight staff, and has been with the program for about a year.
It’s a long process to become a part of the team, as nurses must work at least five years as a nurse in the intensive care unit.
"I've worked as a paramedic as well, so I've always loved the critical care transport environment, because it's not only so dynamic, but also you have to be very resourceful. Your equipment might break, or you might not have the specific equipment -- whereas in the hospital, you have every resource at your fingertips," Cornell said.
The new helicopters, leased by UMHS, still have that new-car smell. As of Friday, the first of the three new helicopters was cycled into active duty.
“It’s your new home,” Tung said as he made final adjustments to the crew's equipment inside the chopper Friday.
Tung explained it will take some time for the new locations of all the equipment on board the aircraft to become familiar to the crews members.
There are some quirky surprises required to be inside the helicopter - like a lighted “no smoking” sign like you’d find on a commercial airplane, and a small first-aid kit in addition to the fully-stocked mobile emergency room.
Night vision goggles are also included in the cabin of the helicopter so nurses can see their instruments and the patient while flying at night, as using bright lights inside the cabin would distract the pilots.
The cabin is fully stocked with as many materials as an advanced life support ambulance.
The new helicopter is able to start up quicker, meaning the crew can hit its target of a five-minute liftoff more readily.
The flight crew is dispatched at the request of a doctor in a hospital’s emergency room, or by first responder staff at a scene where patients are critically injured.
The helicopters don’t fly during icy weather or thunderstorms. U-M uses a fixed-wing Cessna jet, kept at the Oakland County International Airport, or an ambulance during inclement weather periods.
As technology has progressed and more support devices have evolved, Survival Flight has had to accommodate more of them in their transports.
Most times, the patients transported by the Survival Flight crews are the sickest of the sick, and the excitement of flying in a helicopter is lost to them.
Patient Robert Doyen didn't remember the faces of the nurses that were sitting in the helicopter when he was flown from the emergency room in Bay City to Ann Arbor with excruciating pain due to a spinal cord injury.
The significance of the helicopter ride hit home, however - so much that Doyen got a Survival Flight helicopter tattooed on his left arm with the words “Thank you all” inscribed below it.
For the patients that are cognizant when being loaded into the chopper, the crew keeps things positive.
Tung said he tries to keep things lighthearted and fun, even though extenuating circumstances often make flights stressful.
“Some (patients) are reluctant to go at first but then you see them smiling,” Bullen said.
Below, watch some of the Survival Flight nurses share their experiences on helicopter rides:
Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for AnnArbor.com. Reach her at (734) 623-2552, firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter.