Celebrating HEMS: Where aviation and medicine meet.
World Helicopter Day is an annual international celebration of the amazing engineering and essential missions of helicopters. Aircraft and missions such as those flown by our incredible pilots in the delivery of our charity’s life-saving Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS).
HEMS is the official term used to describe the work of many different organisations that are providing a medical service using the speed and agility of a helicopter, including KSS, and other air ambulance charities across the UK and beyond.
We began our HEMS service back in 1989 operating one specially equipped Twin Squirrel helicopter from Rochester Airport. In 2000, as our service developed and located to Marden, we moved to an MD 902 Explorer and in 2007 we welcomed a second to our fleet operating from Dunsfold. The MD 902s provided us with bigger cabin space and extra safety features, such as no tail rotor, enabling us to land in the type of tighter locations often required to get to our patients.
Since then, we have moved to Redhill Aerodrome and have continued to research and innovate as part of our long-term strategy to ensure we can provide the very best possible service to our patients and save even more lives. As part of this we were proud to become the first air ambulance charity in the UK to begin flying at night, we also began to fly with blood on-board and worked to future-proof our aviation capability by moving towards a more modern single-type fleet.
We replaced our MD 902s with three Leonardo AW169 helicopters. We plan for two aircraft to be serviceable online at any one time, providing resilience in our daily aircraft availability, as well as for covering routine service and maintenance schedules.
Our AW169s provide our doctors and paramedics with 360-degree access to our patients, are faster and have a longer range, so we can get to patients more quickly. They have excellent twin-engine performance and other safety systems on-board providing extra layers of protection from obstacles and traffic with the Traffic Collision Avoidance System. They also have the benefit of a glass cockpit and five screens presenting information in such a way that enables our pilots to build better situational awareness.
They also have the capability to fly by Performance Based Navigation (PBN), making them compatible with the aviation industry move to replace current Ground Navigation Systems with PBN. In the future, this will enable our pilots to fly instrument approaches, meaning we can reach more patients, particularly in more adverse weather conditions.
Our helicopters are flown by our highly skilled team of 14 pilots, including Captains and First Officers. Our crew fly as Captain and First Officer teams, and it is their job to safely deliver our medical crew to our patients so that they can begin life-saving treatment as safely and quickly as possible.
Our pilots come from a variety of different rotary wing backgrounds including civil, military, and commercial flying, through our aviation partners Specialist Aviation Services.
Captain Jakob Dingemans has flown with us for five years and has a particular passion for the unique intersection of HEMS, described in his own words as: “where aviation and medicine meet.”
Jakob, or Jop as he’s known, has a degree in Aerospace Engineering and completed his flight training in 2014, before spending a few years instructing and then achieving his instrument rating licence required to become a HEMS pilot.
Jop goes on to explain: “There’s such incredible teamwork involved in HEMS between pilots and clinicians. Because what you essentially have is one crew made up of four people from two very different sets of professional cultures and competencies, aviation and medical. But they’re all working highly effectively together, continually learning from each other, in a very tight-knit intense environment, to save lives.
He continues: “When an emergency call comes in, it’s all about safety and efficiency. Being incredibly thorough and prepared while also thinking on your feet. Often evolving plans with new information coming through and situations unfolding around you, while simultaneously remaining laser-focussed on the task of getting our clinicians to the patient in the safest quickest way possible. It can be a far cry from the more usual lengthy pre-flight briefings and planning you might expect in most other flying roles.
“It could mean flying in clear blue skies or in poor weather, for a few minutes or up to around 30 minutes. It could involve landing in a field, on a motorway, in somebody’s back garden, on a sports or school playing field, in a town or city centre, or in a supermarket car park. It often means difficult decisions on approaches to land to find the closest, but also the most safe, suitable, place. It could mean transporting the patient onwards to a major trauma centre hospital in London or more locally. And, sometimes, we are called to support our neighbouring air ambulance charities if there is a major incident requiring multiple HEMS teams.”
“Ultimately, no one mission is ever the same. Last year KSS was called to respond to more incidents than ever before, over 3,200 collectively made between our helicopters and fleet of Rapid Response Vehicles, also used by our crews to get to patients.”
So, what attracted Jop to HEMS and what does he love most about his job?
“When I was deciding upon my career path in flying, I did consider fixed wing. But the reason I went to helicopters was because of the ways in which they are used for services such as HEMS and Search and Rescue. This type of flying is so demanding, complex, and unique, in terms of flying manoeuvres like hovering and flying into confined and sometimes unusual spaces. You never stop learning new things at the end of every day and there are always things to reflect on which keeps the job very interesting.
“I always love talking to people who will often come and see us when we have landed on a mission. It’s great being able to tell people about the life-saving work of our charity and share aviation knowledge and experience with others, particularly children and young people. I’m always amazed at how many people do not realise that KSS is a charity and that we rely almost entirely on public support to keep flying and saving lives.
“But most importantly for me, it’s about contributing to something so worthwhile – flying to help save lives. And it’s about the teamwork and camaraderie involved, being part of such a special team of amazing people dedicated to professionalism and making a difference every day.”
Captain Nick Bramley, KSS Chief Pilot, adds: “KSS delivers specialist medical teams 24/7, 365, using the latest, safest, most advanced HEMS helicopter platform available. Delivered by our highly trained pilots who are constantly assessed and checked to ensure they meet the demands of their role. They bring our specialist clinical teams to our patients, wherever they may be, in the most expeditious and safest possible way that helps to save lives all day, every day.”