The Magpas Air Ambulance helicopter—and the team that fly it—need to be ready and prepared 24/7 to ensure that our emergency doctors and critical care paramedics can reach patients across the region no matter what. So, every year our pilots undertake special aviation training to perfect their skills and practice emergency scenarios that they would not normally encounter when flying day to day.
Ed Braycotton, Magpas Air Ambulance Chief Unit Pilot, recently travelled to Italy to undertake the training and talked to us about his experience.
What does the annual training consist of?
All Magpas Air Ambulance pilots have an annual requirement to do four hours of simulator training, followed by a simulator and written test. The simulator is a life-size recreation of the AW169 (the Magpas Air Ambulance helicopter) cockpit, and can replicate what happens during a complex emergency, such as a double engine or controls failure. These are scenarios that we need to be prepared for, but that are thankfully exceedingly rare occurrences. The simulator also recreates poor weather flying conditions such as zero visibility, which we do sometimes have to deal with when flying the air ambulance, particularly during the winter months. We must also sit a ground exam which tests knowledge of the aircraft as well as procedural knowledge. The training took four days, which usually comprised of a morning brief and simulator flying, followed by a debrief to pick up on learning points and prepare for the tests.
Why does the training take place in Italy?
All UK-based 169 pilots need to travel to Italy as we don’t have an AW169 simulator here. The simulator is based at the headquarters of Leonardo, the company that manufactures the aircraft, and is part of their training academy on the outskirts of Milan.
When I went at the start of July it was 38 degrees outside, but thankfully the simulator is air-conditioned! We spend two hours flying at a time which is much longer than we would normally spend operationally, as our average flight time to a patient is around 16 minutes. The simulator feels totally lifelike so when you’re trying to fly through an emergency scenario you have a realistic response, which can really get the adrenaline going!
Did you get to do any sightseeing?
We’re there to focus on the training so there’s no time for sightseeing unfortunately, but I did get to do a daily run around the beautiful Lake Maggiore. Normally I wouldn’t have time for that on a 7 am–7 pm shift, and the lake was much more picturesque to run around than our airbase at RAF Wyton!
Why is annual training important?
No two days at Magas Air Ambulance are the same, so we do our training in Italy to be prepared for every possible aviation scenario that we may encounter on shift. One minute you could be landing on a beach with the tide coming in, and then later flying a critically injured patient through challenging weather and landing 280ft above ground on top of The Royal London Hospital. Our ability to fly is impacted by temperature as well as what the weather is like—for example, the engines struggle more when it’s hot as it has been in the UK recently, so we’re limited to the fuel we can carry and need to be dynamic with our planning to ensure we have enough capacity to carry a patient. Conditions for flying can be unpredictable so we have to be prepared for that—I don’t think you can fly more than 30 minutes in England without something in the weather changing!
What type of challenges can you face flying the Magpas Air Ambulance helicopter?
Aside from the weather, landing in towns and cities can be more complex. We have to be careful of overhead wires, cranes and tall buildings, as well as people on the ground. I’ve had to abort landings in the last year due to people running across the landing site.
Because we generally operate at a lower level than other aircraft, birds can also provide more of a hazard and can cause significant damage if they hit the helicopter.
Despite all the challenges that flying with Magpas Air Ambulance can bring, working with a high calibre team for such a worthy cause is a privilege and has provided me with the most rewarding phase of my career to date.