As well as ensuring the safety of passengers, patients and crew, our pilots must consider people and property in the vicinity while taking off and landing.

Those of you who have been near to an air ambulance when it lands or departs will know that it can generate quite a breeze. In Peggy’s case, the speed of the downwash generated can be around 60mph, but the actual speed encountered, depends on several factors, including the distance from the helicopter and position relative to it. The downwash is a product of the helicopter’s rotor disc acting like a large fan and forcing the air down as it generates the lift required to keep the helicopter in the air. However, all helicopter crews are very aware of the hazards that can be caused by downwash, particularly as the aircraft gets closer to the ground.

A tragic case in 2022, where a pedestrian was blown over by an emergency service helicopter approaching a hospital landing site, has heightened awareness of the dangers of downwash and after an investigation by the Air Accidents Investigation Branch, several safety recommendations were made to control or mitigate the inherent risks, when helicopters operate in the congested areas around hospitals. While many of the recommendations were aimed at hospital trusts, the aircraft operator also has a major role in keeping things as safe as possible.

Before transporting a patient to hospital, the helicopter needs to deliver the clinical crew to the incident and air ambulance pilots will always try to land as close as possible to the scene. While we can technically land anywhere when on an emergency call out, we are always cognisant of the potential damage to public property and dangers to the public themselves caused by the helicopter’s downwash. Therefore, before landing, we carry out a recce of the intended landing site and check that it is big enough (30m square by day, and a 30m x 60m rectangle at night) and that there aren’t any hazards that would affect our landing.

In terms of property, we look for things such as trampolines, gazebos and loose fence panels; basically anything that could be blown around and we obviously look for people and animals that are too close. If anything is highlighted, then we can either modify our approach, or we simply look for another suitable landing site. On departure, we check again, ask onlookers to move back at least 30m from the helicopter and warn them of the downwash danger.

When approaching a hospital landing site, our checks are similar to those at an incident scene. However, at the majority of hospitals, the work of ensuring the helipad and surrounding area is safe is carried out before we get there by hospital porters assigned to the task; we try and give them about 15 minutes notice of our arrival, so that they have plenty of time to make the necessary preparations.

In addition to their standard roles within hospital, many porters receive additional training which supports the safe operation of helicopters in and out of the site. Their duties include securing any loose objects around the helipad and the control of vehicle and pedestrian traffic. Once all preparations have been made, they turn on the lights surrounding the helipad, which is a signal to the pilot that the hospital team is ready to receive us.

dorset and somerset air ambulance landed at bournemouth hospital

Staff at Bournemouth Hospital have a special traffic light system, which allows them to control the flow of nearby traffic and pedestrians during helicopter movements

A good example of a hospital looking to improve safety is Bournemouth Hospital where, over the winter, the helipad was closed for a couple of months. This was mainly due to the hospital staff not being able to control the traffic on an adjacent public road and so both vehicles and pedestrians were able to continue moving close to the helipad during helicopter movements. Having then gained agreement from the local council and police, the hospital installed a traffic light system which the porters are trained to operate, thus allowing the control of movement around the helipad. In February, DSAA undertook a trial landing with Peggy and the crew to test the new procedures and to spend time with the porters and hospital staff to discuss safety matters. The successful training exercise means that helicopter operations to the hospital have resumed, which is great news for all.