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Giving the gift of time – the work of the air ambulance service

April 5, 2013

As horse riders, we’re always aware that horses have the potential to be dangerous. This was brought home to two members of New Barn Riders recently, who had two separate accidents resulting in an unscheduled ride in an air ambulance. Both riders are now recovering, but it made our group aware of what an essential service the air ambulance provide, and when volunteer presenter Victor Crawford came to talk to us about the work the service does, the room was packed with an interested audience.


Most of us weren’t aware that the air ambulance, set up in 1999, relies almost entirely on charitable donations.

“The point of the air ambulance service is to give the ‘gift of time’,” explained Victor. “We flew over 1,400 missions in 2012 alone, and aim to get patients to hospital in under an hour, saving over 1,000 lives in the process.

“Just like the lifeboats, we’re almost 100% charity funded. Only our paramedics are government employees, and the service costs £4 million a year to run. Our funding comes from individuals, groups and businesses.

“The North West Air Ambulance services covers Cheshire, Lancashire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside, an area with around eight million inhabitants, and we’re one of 18 air ambulance charities nationwide. We’ve got two helicopters, which are leased – one’s based at Blackpool and the other at Barton in Manchester. The aircraft would cost around £4 million each if we were to buy them, and then we equip them with another £500,000 worth of kit. At the moment, we’re only allowed to fly during daylight hours, which is a Civil Aviation Authority regulation.

We’re currently in the process of moving our helicopters so that they’re more on the spot. Although they’ll remain based at aerodromes overnight, after their first mission of the day they’ll go to one of the hospitals, such as Wythenshawe, and wait there for the next call.”

Photo copyright NWAA

Photo copyright NWAA

Each helicopter carries a paramedic, a pilot and a doctor, as well as a full range of medical equipment such as a heart defibrillator. After each mission, the inside of the aircraft and the equipment are thoroughly cleaned to avoid cross infection.The paramedics are supplied by the NHS, and stay on secondment for two or three years. They volunteer to be on the team, as they want to gain experience with serious trauma cases. One of the paramedics on board will also be a trained navigator, and each aircraft carries a bag full of Ordnance Survey maps to help the team choose a suitable landing spot if they have to come down among fields.

Following an emergency call, the team aims to scramble and take off in under four minutes, and the helicopters can reach any point in the region in under 15 minutes. After spending 15 – 20 minutes on the ground retrieving and stabilising the patient, the team will try to reach the most appropriate hospital, such as Wythenshawe, which has a specialist burns unit, in less than 15 minutes.

Photo copyright NWAA

Photo copyright NWAA

“Sometimes the landings can be very challenging,” explained Victor. “If the helicopter has to land in an urban area, it can be dodging anything from lampposts to bus shelters.”

The air ambulance team see a relatively high proportion of horse riding accidents, which make up 13% of the total. This is partly because riding can be a dangerous sport, but also as many riders fall in remote areas that are inaccessible by conventional vehicles.

“Land ambulances now have to carry so much equipment, and are so heavy, that they can’t get across soft surfaces such as fields anymore,” said Victor. “Our teams are far more flexible, and we can normally reach a casualty wherever they are. We also work with the mountain rescue teams where necessary.”

T o find out more about the work of the North West Air Ambulance Service, to make a donation or to organise a talk for your club or organisation, visit

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