Captain Chris Sherriff is one of Magpas Air Ambulance’s two full-time pilots who fly the charity’s medical team members to patients when every second counts.
Chris sat down with us to talk about how he made his dream to fly a reality; the excitement and challenges of being an air ambulance pilot; and his unique history with Magpas Air Ambulance.
Your history with Magpas Air Ambulance goes back further than most, can you tell us more about that?
My dad, Howard Sherriff, was a doctor in the Royal Air Force when this charity was first established, and it didn’t take him long to hear of the work the service was providing in the local community. Just a few years later he joined the team as one of the charity’s volunteer doctors… And with that, our family ties with Magpas Air Ambulance began.
As a boy, I remember him getting all the medical kit and the light for the roof of the car—as back in the early days the doctors responded to emergencies in their own time, and in their own cars. I even remember days out as a kid with him and ending up at road traffic accidents because he’d been called to help.
My dad remained a part of Magpas Air Ambulance for a long time and was even the charity’s chairman for several years. I think we both like that the relationship with the charity and our family has continued with me. This service has been such a huge part of both of our lives.
Growing up with someone so involved in the emergency medical services definitely created a huge interest in the work for me… But it was always flying that inspired me most.
How did you become a helicopter pilot?
For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to fly. However, when I didn’t do the best at school, a part of me thought maybe that dream was no longer achievable. When I found out you can pay for your own training, with the view that once you pass you can try and get a job as a pilot that way, that’s what I set my sights on.
It only took one lesson in an aeroplane to know it was all worth it. It was exhilarating and I knew then that that was what I was meant to do.
I later got to fly a helicopter… And it was 10 times the fun! Although you don’t get quite the same feeling of speed and so on, you can do so much more in a helicopter, like hovering and performing manoeuvres at low level. There’s more of a challenge to flying a helicopter, and it really drew me in.
You also get a totally different feeling of flying. I still remember when it lifted into a hover for the first time, the feeling was unlike anything I’d ever felt before—some people even describe it as a magic carpet.
Tell us more about the training…
Interestingly, when learning to fly helicopters, you’re put up in the air first and then learn the skills to fly… Away from the ground.
You learn techniques such as how to climb, descend and turn. You learn to master each control one by one until eventually you’re in charge of all of them, and you then have to learn how to do everything at once. It’s only once you’re competent at everything else that you can begin to hover, as that’s one of the hardest parts of flying a helicopter. However, hovering is a key part of taking off and landing, so until you’ve learnt the coordination to hover, you can’t actually get yourself up in the air or land.
Often people have racked up many hours of flying a helicopter before they learn to hover, but once you do you realise why. As you’re so close to the ground you have to be extremely careful—the controls are so sensitive, just 1mm of movement can be the equivalent of flying about 3 or 4 meters! Hence the fact you need a lot of experience.
There’s also all the other aspects of flying you need to learn; from navigation; to reading maps; all the exams you need to pass… It’s a challenging process. But ultimately a lot of fun and completely worth it.
How did you come to work in Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) after becoming a pilot?
Like many new pilots, when I was first able to fly I’d do any job I could just to get up in the air, but you have to fly for a set amount of time on a private pilot’s licence before you can get your commercial one. Because the rules were different back then, I was able to instruct on my private pilot’s licence, and that’s how I was able to build the hours to gain my commercial one.
It was actually while I was teaching at Cambridge Airport that one of the local air ambulances would come in to land and the crew would sometimes spend time at the training school. Seeing that service in action drove me to go into this line of work, and I’ve been doing it ever since!
There are additional challenges you face when flying as a HEMS pilot— one of which is landing, as there are lots of extra considerations and dangers you need to take into account when landing an air ambulance. For example, the landing site needs to be a 30-meter circle (and I have to judge that from 500ft in the air), I need to be thinking about obstacles in the way such as wires and what’s surrounding the area that our downwash could potentially reach (such as garden furniture and trampolines). As well as that, I need to make sure that there’s definitely access in and out of the site for our clinical crew to reach the patient… If I was a chartered pilot landing at an airport, I wouldn’t have to think about any of that.
I’m also on hand once we land to help the team if they need anything, but most of the time I need to stay with the helicopter. If we land in public parks etc. it often draws a fair bit of attention, so I’m always making sure the aircraft is safe as well as answering public questions.
What are your favourite aspects of being an air ambulance pilot?
I’ve been flying for 27 years now and still love every minute of it. In this role in particular, you never know where you’re going to be called to, where you’re going to land or what incidents you’re going to go to, so there’s always an element of excitement when each shift begins.
However, the real buzz is when you know, as a team, that you’ve made a real difference to someone’s life. Magpas Air Ambulance is only called to the most critically ill and injured patients in the region due to the advanced level of care our medical team delivers, therefore the times we collectively make a difference and help save someone are so rewarding.