Memorial Hermann Life Flight® can now conduct flights under instrument flight rules (IFR). These flights are by reference to aircraft flight instruments and advanced navigation systems rather than requiring visual cues. This capability allows Life Flight crews to serve the community when weather conditions might restrict flight under visual flight rules, or VFR. No other helicopter flight program in Southeast Texas can offer IFR service for all patients.
Being IFR capable, trained and equipped offers much higher levels of safety during every flight conducted by giving crews options when un-forecast weather is encountered. Weather decisions for flight requests can be made with greater certainty, which means more dependable service to the community and patients in need of air transport. Flight safety is further enhanced by being in radar contact and in constant communication with Air Traffic Control (ATC). This highly structured and tightly controlled system is why every airline flight in the United States is conducted using IFR.
Prior to becoming an IFR program, Life Flight missed an average of 600 patient flights per year due to weather. That is nearly 20% of the patient flight requests that were affected. Many of those flights missed were due to cloud ceilings and visibility that did not meet FAA requirements for Helicopter Air Ambulances (HAA) operations. The NTSB and FAA continue to issue more restrictive weather, equipment and training requirements to address safety in the HAA industry, which could eventually include mandatory IFR flight during night operations. These rules are already in use in many European countries and the FAA generally follows the example of the International Civil Aviation Organization, known as ICAO in matters of flight safety.
Using IFR capability, crews can launch from select Life Flight bases and conduct instrument approach procedures (IAPs) to most airports in Southeast Texas. Because IFR flight uses advanced GPS routing, ground-based navigation aids and ATC radar guidance, the en route cloud heights and visibility are not limiting factors. Many flights can be completed using a combination of VFR and IFR to expedite the response and patient transport. While every airport’s approach procedure has different minimum weather requirements, some locations offer minimums as low as 200 foot cloud ceilings and ¼ mile visibility. Life Flight has several FAA certified, proprietary helicopter GPS procedures to and from hospitals in the Greater Houston area, as well as select heliports in the community for even greater service capability.
The Life Flight fleet consists of six, Airbus EC-145 helicopters that are IFR certified, equipped for single-pilot operation, and boast some of the finest avionics available. These helicopters have dual autopilots, weather radar, dual GPS units, 3 X color moving-map displays, terrain and obstacle warning systems, traffic avoidance systems and XM satellite aviation weather. Every system on each Life Flight aircraft has a backup and some of the avionics and flight instruments have two backups. The helicopters are capable of flying instrument approaches directly to runways at a height of 50 feet while coupled to the autopilot system.
Pilots at Life Flight undergo a rigorous training program to be certified for IFR service. 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. Each training flight is conducted with numerous instrument takeoffs, approaches and emergency simulations. Line Oriented Flight Training, or LOFT, scenario-based training, and hands-on flight operations are used extensively to ensure that Life Flight aviators are unflappable, proficient and exacting.
With this new capability, Life Flight continues its tradition of innovation in the helicopter EMS industry. The service will be more available, more dependable and serve the community with greater safety due to IFR. Life Flight will be able to respond to more requests and with fewer weather aborts than in the past. While IFR is not possible in all cases, it is a significant factor that contributes to safer operation and will expand the scope of practice as a community service and the value of Life Flight for colleagues in emergency services and the health care fields.
In honor of its founder and medical director, James “Red” Duke, MD, Life Flight applied for and was assigned a worldwide call-sign of “Red Duke.” All communications with Air Traffic Control while on IFR flights now uses the “Red Duke” call-sign.
Thank you for your continued support and for working with Life Flight as a team to bring the highest level of care to patients in Southeast Texas.
No. While IFR allows flights when weather might prevent VFR flight due to cloud height and decreased visibility, flights are limited during thunderstorms, icing conditions and extremely low visibility (fog).
Many locations where Life Flight routinely responds are near airports that would allow a rendezvous with EMS. During the request for Life Flight, Communications personnel will advise EMS if a meeting at a nearby airport would be required.
It may add some time to the liftoff due to flight plan filing, and more detailed run-up procedures, but that time can often be made up en route since IFR allows for high speed flight above low weather conditions.
Yes. The medical team will handle all communications with hospitals, EMS, fire, and law enforcement during flights conducted IFR. The pilot will be focused on air traffic control communications.
There are dozens of IFR-capable airport locations throughout Southeast Texas. See the list below.
IFR Airports in Southeast Texas
Memorial Hermann Life Flight is CAMTS Certified, Part 135 Certificate, Memorial Hermann Hospital System GVNA529E, TX 101025