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About Medical Airplanes & Helicopters

written by: BuckJamesk•edited by: Jason C. Chavis•updated: 7/5/2010

Curious about the life of an air evacuation helicopter pilot? Want to know how organs are transported across the country in an emergency? Read this article to discover the methods used in medical airplanes.

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    Medical Aviation: A Necessity

    In the modern age of high-speed air transport, using aircraft for medical purposes is a "no-brainer." Medical aircraft can fulfill many different purposes; transporting time-critical patients is one of the most obvious. Both helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft are heavily utilized in today's world to assist in medical emergencies and situations. Read on to discover the types of aircraft used for these assignments, as well as the jobs they perform and what it is like to be a pilot on a medical mission.

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    The Roles They Play

    Aircraft play a large part in many different aspects of the medical field. One of the most well-known uses of an aircraft in medicine is an air evacuation helicopter. Helicopters are capable of maneuvering and landing in extremely confined areas, as well as moving at high speed through the air. This means that they are perfect for transporting time-critical patients from the scene of an accident to the nearest hospital. An air evacuation helicopter can land on a highway or in a field, pick up an injured person, and lift off again in a matter of minutes. Trained emergency personnel are on board to administer treatment, just like in an ambulance. Pilots of these helicopters must be at the very top of their game, as they will be asked to fly safely in a variety of different environments and situations.

    An example of a fixed-wing medical airplane is one used to quickly transport blood or organs from a blood bank or hospital to a location where it is needed. Depending on the mission, this can be an aircraft as small as a four-seat, twin-engined Piper Seminole, to as large as a corporate Citation Jet. Whatever aircraft is used, it must have a sufficient cargo space, high-speed capabilities, and the ability to fly and land in poor weather conditions. Many privately-operated companies will contract blood transport services and operate their own fleet of aircraft.

    Many aircraft are also used to transport patients who are not well enough to travel by car, or who need to be transported very quickly. These aircraft are sometimes equipped with special passenger areas that are outfitted almost like an ambulance, to aid the patient in transport. Some organizations, like AngelFlight, help pilots who own aircraft volunteer their time and provide private planes to help those in need.

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    Medical Pilot: A Day in the Life

    A pilot who flies medical airplanes must be ready to go at a moment's notice. The following is an example of what a medical aviator might experience when flying a medical mission.

    Many medical pilots have days during which they are "on-call." If the pilot is called during this time, he or she must drop what they are doing and immediately head to the airport. The company dispatcher will inform the pilot of the mission, and brief him or her on where they will be flying. Once he or she has arrived at the airport, a weather check must be made and a flight plan filed. The pilot performs a pre-flight inspection of the aircraft to be flown, climbs aboard, and takes off. While on a medical mission, medical airplanes are given a callsign such as "LifeGuard" or "LifeFlight." This lets air traffic controllers know that the pilot is on an urgent mission. Air traffic control can then give preference to that flight, helping to speed the airplane to its destination.

    The pilot may have to fly the medical airplane to a different airport to pick up a package of blood, or an organ. Generally, an individual from the hospital sending the blood or organ will be waiting for the pilot when they land. After picking up the package, the pilot takes off again, wasting no time on the ground. The pilot may then have to fly across the country - wherever the blood is needed.

    When the destination airport has been reached, another person will be waiting (sometimes an ambulance) to pick up the package. The blood is then spirited off to the hospital where it is needed, and the pilot is free to fly the medical airplane home.