Men on a Mission
PUBLISHED: 12:08 03 February 2014 | UPDATED: 16:14 04 February 2014
Jilly Hurley meets the crew of the East Anglian Air Ambulance as they set off into the night
The working day is, for most of us, bookended by dawn and dusk.
We follow the rhythm of the sun, getting up and out when it gets light, and going home when the light fades. The encroaching darkness is our cue to relax, to quit the workplace and go home. When the winter takes us all in its frosty grip, the evenings are a time to cosy up and recharge for another day.
But for the night pilots working for the East Anglian Air Ambulance, this pattern of living is exactly reversed. Their shifts begin when most people’s end. They are always a very important resource, but never more so than when the weather is least hospitable and the days short.
Chris Sherriff is one of the night pilots working for the EAAA. Chris has worked for the EAAA, alongside the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) crew, for six years. His shift begins with a briefing. Shedding his thick winter coat, he sits down in front of a computer screen for an extensive handover with the pilot working the day-shift.
“A large part of my job is making sure that we are 100 per cent safe to fly,” he says. “Operating in the dark is obviously more complicated than during the day – for the simple reason that you can’t see. As the weather largely determines if it is safe for us to attend missions,
“I spend a lot of time analysing cloud cover and weather conditions. I have to be able to guarantee that we will be able to land in the dark at the scene of a medical emergency.”
Achieving night-flying capability has been a long process for the East Anglian Air Ambulance, made all the more difficult by its pioneering nature – they are the first air ambulance to have gained permission to operate life-saving missions during the hours of darkness. Although the number of miles driven decreases substantially at night compared with the day time, more than half of all traffic deaths occur after dark.
“Operating HEMS at night isn’t all about flying in the dark,” says Chris. “The lack of light has a huge impact on the doctors and critical care paramedics. It has been necessary to think through all the implications of operating in the dark– a problem solving exercise, if you like.”
When Chris is confident he has assessed all possible weather issues, and communicated with the aviation authorities, he turns his attention to the crew with whom he will be working, on this occasion Dr Ed Gold and critical care paramedic Neil Flowers. They greet each other with a mixture of camaraderie and mutual respect, the sort that arises from collaboration that is not merely long-standing but also intense and pressured.
After a brief exchange of news, they settle into the important task of assessing the weather and flight routes. Each route is clearly plotted on a large screen, so that all members of the team feel comfortable with the route and landing site.
Chris briefs the team on the evening’s weather. Low cloud has covered the region for much of the day, but fortunately it is clearing to the east. There’s hope therefore that they will be able to carry out night-time HEMS missions this evening.
The emergency phone – red and flashing – rings. Paramedic Neil takes his first call of the evening from the critical care desk. He moves quickly but carefully, noting all the salient information, including the grid reference of the incident. This is immediately transferred into the mapping system on the computer.
A middle-aged man has fallen down >>
>> some stairs and hit his head, and is now unconscious. Chris checks the grid reference against the weather map. Thick clouds hover above the incident site in Framlingham. Landing could be tricky. As pilot, he has to make the difficult decision as to whether it is safe to fly.
“It is, without doubt, the hardest aspect of my job,” he says. “I know I have to make my decisions without emotion. If I decide to go and find subsequently that the weather worsens, we might get half way there and have to turn back if we hit a poor weather pocket. This puts the patient at risk because the paramedics on the ground will be waiting for the HEMS crew to provide emergency care at the scene.
“Our failure to make it to the scene would mean that vital minutes were lost in getting the patient to hospital.”
Ed and Neil await Chris’s verdict. They know the safety of a mission rests on the pilot’s shoulders, and they always respect whatever decision is made. It is a tense moment. With cloud clearing steadily, there is reasonable chance that the incident site will be clear by the time the EAAA arrives. Chris confirms he will fly. The crew immediately responds.
On arrival, however, the cloud is still clinging to Framlingham, so Chris and the crew must quickly forge another plan. It is pitch black. If the team decides to land a little further along the road from the incident, the EEAST ambulance – tasked to meet the HEMS crew – could easily pass them by in the dark. They decide to land in a large well known playing field nearby.
When landing at an unlit site, the pilot circles the site at 1000 feet and then at 500 feet, to ensure it is safe to land. The ambulance crew on the ground can then package the patient and bring him to the HEMS crew for treatment. The patient is anaesthetised at the scene, and then flown to Cambridge Airport, where he is transferred to Addenbrooke’s Hospital for treatment of his serious head injury.
Back at base there is little time to rest – the red phone erupts into life once more. It is striking how calm everyone is at all times. No-one ever runs, or raises their voice.
“Rushes of adrenalin are not helpful in this job,” says Chris. “Nothing is achieved well if crews are excitable, we have to be thinking 100 per cent clearly. It might be surprising to some, but we are all very calm and we don’t run around the base preparing for a mission. Everything we do is about ensuring that we get to the patient as quickly and safely as possible.”
Returning later that evening from a mission in Lowestoft, the crew are tasked to an incident in Colchester.
“I immediately began to consider the fuel,” remembers Chris. “We had flown from Cambridge to Lowestoft and then on to Colchester, which is quite a distance. A key consideration in the planning process is the amount of fuel on board because at night many of the refuelling sites are closed. However, we had more pressing issues to deal with!”
Thick mist and fog are gathering throughout the East Anglian skies and becoming a serious concern. The crew need to get to Colchester quickly. Thankfully, the landing site is straight forward. It is a rugby injury, and the pitch provides a perfectly sized landing site. But the weather is worsening so Chris prioritises getting the helicopter back to Cambridge. He must leave as soon as he has dropped off the HEMS crew, if he is going to be able to get back to base.
While waiting for the crew to return to base, Chris reflects on the night-time missions.
“Being the first air ambulance to achieve permission to attend HEMS missions at night meant that there wasn’t any precedent. It’s a great achievement.” Chris’s commercial flying background meant that he had little experience of landing at unlit and unknown sites. so he attended training courses with other emergency services. “I had no night vision training; it was therefore incredibly valuable to undergo the same training that’s taken by pilots flying at night for other services. Obviously, I had done a lot of flying at night as a commercial pilot where you take off and land in lit and well known sites. But I needed to ensure that I could navigate with night vision goggles, and take off and land in the dark at unknown sites.”
From dusk to darkness to dawn: the long shift is almost at an end, and so the crew ready themselves to leave the base and return home, just as most of us are getting up and out to work. It is a life oddly out of synch. As far as the flying goes, though, Chris says that in many ways the night flights can be quieter and smoother, simply because there is less air traffic. The challenges of operating in the dark are nonetheless considerable, and unique. Chris admits that it can sometimes be hard to unwind after a night shift; he often plays over missions in his head. But all that must be put behind him by the time he next arrives at work, in a job that can only be lived in the intensity of the moment, and moving forward.