HealthNet implements new flight method
at Morgantown base

Technique helps pilots navigate in poor weather conditions

MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – HealthNet Aeromedical Services has implemented a new method of flight operation in order to decrease the number of EMS flights that have to be cancelled due to poor visibility or low-hanging clouds.

The new method, known as Instrument Flight Rules (IFR), is one of two sets of Federal Aviation Regulations governing civil aviation aircraft operation. It allows flights to operate in poor meteorological conditions – typically those where pilots must rely on navigation methods other than sight, including a system of ground-based navigation tools and satellite-based GPS systems.

In early April, HealthNet pilots attended a week of formal classroom training with Air Methods in Denver, Colo. Air Methods partners with HealthNet to provide aviation service at its eight bases. Classroom training was followed by extensive in-flight training sessions simulating poor weather conditions. Pilots utilized “foggles,” which are goggle-type glasses that imitate clouds and fog. Pilots then learn how to navigate without any ground references.

“They can’t look out the window and get their bearings from buildings, hills, the horizon, etc.,” Dave M. Wilson, program aviation manager for Air Methods, said. “They have to rely on electronic signals. It’s very different from what they’re used to.”

Currently, Air Methods has approximately 40 air medical programs around the U.S. utilizing IFR.

“As a program, HealthNet takes safety very seriously,” Bernie Reynolds, regional aviation director for Air Methods Northeast Region, said. “IFR is just another example of HealthNet’s commitment to providing safe air medical transport services to its customers and remaining on the cutting edge of flight techniques.”

Reynolds added the primary focus of IFR training is to teach pilots to adhere to a disciplined set of procedures so that each flight is operated the same way under any weather circumstances.

“We throw in as many distractions as possible during the training and teach them how to react,” he said.

HealthNet first became interested in utilizing IFR after the purchase of its EC-145 helicopter, which is equipped to perform single-pilot IFR and has a fully redundant cockpit. This means that every system has a complete backup, according to Stellman Teter, chief flight nurse/base manager for HealthNet 1 in Morgantown.

Once the helicopter was purchased, HealthNet conducted a three-month study to determine how many flights were declined due to poor weather conditions. In the first month alone, 19 flights were denied. Final study results showed that 11 of 19 flights could have been completed with the addition of IFR.

Teter said both the pilots and flight crews have been excited about IFR, calling it a “wonderful addition to the program.”

“HealthNet pilots have worked extensively with their flight crews to share their knowledge, and with each training session, the confidence level of the crew has increased tremendously,” he said. “Everyone’s goal is the same – to improve response times and to reach accident victims despite low visibility. IFR does just that.”

Four HealthNet pilots have completed the training and several successful IFR transports have been conducted from the Morgantown base. Plans are to continue to expand the IFR method to the other HealthNet bases within the next 18 months.

“The transition of HealthNet’s Morgantown base to IFR operations is another example of how the organization leverages technology to serve our patients,” Clinton Burley, HealthNet interim president and CEO, said. “We will now be able to safely reach critically ill and injured persons in more marginal weather conditions. Each time we fly, our expert medical teams bring the highest level of care to our patients. IFR simply increases our reach, and ultimately, the patient benefits.”

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dc/asj: 07-06-12