Memorial Hermann Life Flight®, the only hospital-based air ambulance serving Houston and surrounding communities, has added yet another groundbreaking innovation to its already long list of “firsts,” becoming the first air-ambulance program in Southeast Texas to be granted authority to conduct flights under instrument flight rules (IFR) by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA). This new capability allows Life Flight crews to utilize aircraft flight instruments and advanced navigation systems rather than relying solely on visual cues or what is referred to in aviation as visual flight rules (VFR).
“By becoming IFR-certified, we are now able to operate safely during the en route phase regardless of visibility and cloud ceilings,” said Christopher “Todd” Grubbs, ATP, chief pilot of Life Flight. “This capability allows our crews to serve the community when weather conditions might restrict flights under VFR. We can go above the clouds or in the clouds using our autopilot and our navigation instrumentation. Every airline conducts flights using IFR, and now we are operating under the same conditions.”
It’s estimated that Life Flight, which is part of the world renowned Memorial Hermann Texas Trauma Institute, currently misses an average of 600 flights annually due to inclement weather, affecting close to 15 percent of patient flight requests. While some flights may still not be possible in cases of extremely bad weather conditions, the use of IFR will significantly expand Life Flight’s ability to safely serve the community since weather decisions for flight requests can now be made with greater certainty.
“The maximum benefit of flying under IFR is to avoid the risks associated with flying during those conditions. The safety of our crew and patients is our No. 1 priority,” said Grubbs.
In an effort to maximize its new IFR capabilities and further reduce patient transport time, the program is even adding its own proprietary global positioning system (GPS) procedures to several of the hospitals and heliports in the Greater Houston area. These procedures will allow for direct takeoff and landing at multiple locations that historically might be restricted to use under VFR only. Together, all of these advancements mean healthcare and pre-hospital providers across the region can now depend upon Life Flight’s much-needed service more than ever.
In addition, the program’s new capabilities have the potential to positively affect patient outcomes across the region by allowing air transport versus ground transport in many cases. “Many physicians rightfully worry about the length of time it takes a critically ill patient to be transported by ground, and they are forced to carefully weigh the risks and benefits,” said Eric von Wenckstern, administrative director of Life Flight. “We aim to make that decision easier by continuing to expand the services Life Flight offers.”
To achieve the prestigious IFR certification, Life Flight pilots undergo rigorous training and are required to achieve airline transport pilot (ATP) licensure, which is the same required of pilots who fly commercial airplanes. The didactic and practical portions of the IFR training curriculum take approximately one month to complete and involve meeting the most challenging standards in aviation.
The Life Flight fleet, which completes more than 3,000 missions each year, consists of six Airbus EC-145 helicopters, all of which are equipped and certified for single-pilot IFR operation. The John S. Dunn Helipad at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center can accommodate four helicopters at one time and is considered one of the busiest helipads in the United States. In addition to the 21 pilots, the nationally acclaimed Life Flight team includes 21 flight nurses, 18 paramedics/dispatchers and eight mechanics. Each helicopter is inspected and serviced daily.
Life Flight was recently named winner of the Texas Department of State Health Services’ 2014 EMS Air Medical Service of the Year Award. This marks the program’s third time to achieve the prestigious recognition which honors the top air medical service in Texas that has demonstrated the highest standards in providing patient care while leading the way in innovation and commitment to patient care. Founded in 1976 by James “Red” Duke, M.D., who still serves as medical director of the program today, the service retrieves critically ill and injured patients in the Greater Houston area and beyond, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.