The front of the University of Michigan Health System’s Survival Flight team’s new helicopters are slickly designed to look like a Michigan football helmet. The nurses and pilots pride themselves in a winning tradition as well; up in the sky, treating patients with critical medical needs like a more intense football-game overtime with lives on the line.
The UMHS Survival Flight team has introduced three new, top-of-the-line Eurocopter 155 helicopters, containing all of the capabilities of the hospital’s emergency room within each versatile flying machine.
Founded in 1983, the Survival Flight program is a 24-hours-a-day team of 11 pilots, 24 nurse paramedics, 10 communication specialists and seven mechanics responsible for three helicopters and one jet to transport and attend to patients in need of dire medical attention as well as move patients and organs in between hospitals. The University shares employees with Waterford, Mich.-based Pentastar Aviation.
The program flies about 1,200 missions a year. Aside from treating and transporting people involved in accidents or suffering from time-sensitive ailments, the team also carries out other missions like delivering organs for transplant from one hospital to another.
The program uses three helipads at the University hospital and has a hangar at the Ann Arbor Municipal Airport. A new hangar is currently under construction at the Livingston County Spencer J. Hardy Airport.
Since 1998, the University has used three Bell 430 helicopters. The new EC-155s began undergoing missions last week and will eventually replace the Bell 430s.
The EC-155s have a multitude of new features, including a cruising speed of up to 164 mph, a 500-mile range, an all-glass cockpit and the ability to start up faster than older models. They also have 50 percent more cabin space than the Bell 430s.
In an interview, University alum Morgan Cornell, a Survival Flight nurse, said he’s one of the newest members of the team and has been working for almost a year. He said he’s been able to ride in the new EC-155s a few times.
He added that the team handles many critical care transports and usually a mission entails flights to tertiary hospitals and bringing patients back to the University hospital ICU.
“About 10 percent of our calls are right to the scene, so we’ll go to the highway or a field and pick up patients right at the scene of an accident and bring them to the trauma center,” Cornell said.
Cornell said EC-155s and Bell 430s are fully stocked with medical equipment and that Survival Flight asks the nurse paramedics to be able to perform anything that could be performed in a hospital.
“We do everything that they do in the ER and the ICU, just a smaller space,” Cornell said. “If a patient’s not breathing, we have breathing tube(s) we may need to use to help them breathe … We do a lot of other procedures, special IVs if we need to.”
In an interview, Survival Flight Pilot Thomas Sherony said the new EC-155s are to the pilots’ liking.
“It’s significantly faster. It’s a little bit more automated, so there’s more autopilot functionality and the autopilot is on (for) more of the flight than the other one,” Sherony said. “The start-up should be faster, but we’re, as a group of pilots, not that fast at starting yet. We’re just getting more familiar with the machine and that will come in time.”
Sherony said that with favorable conditions, he could probably fly to Marquette in two hours.
Denise Landis, the Survival Flight manager of critical care transport, said in an interview that there is no such thing as a “typical day” for the team.
“We may not have a flight at all, and then another day we might have nine flights,” Landis said. “I’ve been doing this a long time, there’s no rhyme or reason.”
Landis said the helicopters are really special because no other EC-155s in the United States are equipped with medical interiors.
Landis added that the Survival Flight team is always working to keep up with UMHS’s innovation.
“Any kind of gizmo, technique, equipment that they dream up to take care of really sick patients in that building, we have to convert it into (the helicopters), and now we have the space to do so,” she said.
In a press release, Dr. Mark J. Lowell, Survival Flight’s medical director, said the new technology is great, but the team is what makes Survival Flight run smoothly.
“We’re excited about the helicopters’ increased capabilities and safety features, but it’s also important to remember that the heart of Survival Flight will remain the same, and by that I mean our dedicated team of highly skilled fight nurses, pilots, mechanics and communications specialists,” Lowell said in the release.
“Survival Flight is about more than just getting a really sick patient from point A to point B,” he added. “It’s about the highly specialized care the patient receives before, during and after transport.”
In an interview, Lowell said he had a good car analogy to demonstrate how much better their new EC-155s are than most hospital’s helicopters.
“(It’s like going) from a Yugo to an Escalade,” he said.