By John Gibb
AP Business Writer
Representatives of HealthNet Aeromedical Services Inc. are excited about a new method of flight operation that will decrease the number of emergency medical services flights that have to be canceled because of poor visibility or low-hanging clouds.
Those representatives showcased an EC-130 Eurocopter at Yeager Airport Monday. The EC-130 is a back-up aircraft for HealthNet and is based at the airport. HealthNet officials discussed a flight operational model certified in aircrafts in both the northern and southern regions of the state.
The flight method, known as Instrument Flight Rules, allows an aircraft to operate in poor meteorological conditions — typically those where pilots must rely on navigation methods other than sight, including a system of navigation tools and satellite-based GPS systems. HealthNet has been using this new model in Beckley for four months and officials claim it has proved to be effective.
Instrument Flight Rules is one of two sets of Federal Aviation regulations governing civil aviation aircraft operation. The entire HealthNet fleet is equipped with such capabilities but only the aircrafts based in Morgantown and Beckley are certified by the Federal Aviation Administration to take off using an Instrument Flight Rules operation model. As of now, the other HealthNet aircrafts are not certified but have access to the flight rules in case of an emergency situation.
“There have been many times in which HealthNet had to cancel flights because of poor visibility and other factors,” said Clinton Burley, president and CEO of HealthNet. “IFR has been a positive thing for our operations. When we cancel flights, patients have to be transported by ambulance and that could take several hours ... hours that a patient may not have.”
Burley pointed to a specific example on how instrument flight rules is working.
“We had a patient in Beckley (Monday) morning with cardiac issues and needed to be transported to Charleston for emergency care. Because of the visibility and low-hanging clouds, we probably would not have been able to fly. But IFR operations have made it possible to fly in these conditions.”
Burley said HealthNet pilots have to undergo specialized in-flight training that simulates poor weather conditions. Pilots use “foggles,” which are goggle-type glasses that imitate clouds and fog and learn how to navigate the aircraft without any ground references.
“Using IFR operations is another example of how the organization leverages technology to serve our patients,” Burley said.
HealthNet is a not-for-profit critical care transport system operated by Charleston Area Medical Center, Cabell Huntington Hospital and WVU Healthcare. All three hospitals provide the financial backing for HealthNet’s helicopters.
Burley said HealthNet took delivery of four brand new EC-130 air medical helicopters in 2013. Two more are on order and are expected to be added to the fleet in the first quarter of 2014.
“When delivered, the two new aircraft will replace older aircraft now in service at our bases in Ripley and Buckhannon,” Burley said. “When the new aircraft is placed into service, the average age of our helicopter fleet will be 2.5 years. The hospitals are such strong supporters of what we do and they are fully invested in our fleet and our mission.”
HealthNet has eight bases scattered across the area, including a base in Kentucky and one in Ohio. Formed in 1986, HealthNet has transported more than 70,000 patients.