Unit Chief Pilot Mario Carretta looks back over the past six months, which has seen new pilots join our crew, as well as new developments making it easier for us to fly COVID-19 positive patients.

Phil Merritt and Max Hoskins, the two base pilots for the majority of Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance’s existence, have now moved on. Both pilots made an enormous contribution to our air operations and while we said goodbye to Phil in our last edition of Beeline magazine, we have since said farewell to Max too.

In April 2017 we increased our pilot numbers from two to four, so that we could cover two shifts a day. Late last year, we took on a fifth pilot so that we would be able to provide our own cover for holidays, sickness and training. Due to this change and Phil and Max leaving, we have been joined by Paul Nolan, who already worked for Specialist Aviation Services (SAS) as a touring pilot; Scott Armstrong, who was previously a freelance Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) pilot; and Kev Rutherford, who had been flying with the Omani Royal Flight. All of them are very familiar with the skies over Dorset and Somerset, having previously been members of the Fleet Air Arm based at Yeovilton.

Neither Scott or Kev had any previous AW169 experience, so they had to complete a type rating course, which would usually be carried out at the Leonardo training facility in Sesto Calende, Northern Italy. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the two weeks of classroom aircraft technical training became a distance learning exercise from home. Because normal and emergency aircraft handling is taught in a simulator, that had to be carried out in Italy. Despite the process becoming more and more difficult as the COVID-19 restrictions took hold in both countries, both pilots managed to complete their training on time. In late 2020, the simulator training had to stop and, although training can be carried out in the actual aircraft, the training available is more limited and more costly.

Some of the measures taken to enable us to fly COVID-19 positive patients were temporary in nature and work has gone on in the last few months to design and implement more permanent solutions. One temporary modification was to seal off all the heater vents to the
cabin, which prevented air flowing from the cabin into the cockpit and so kept the cockpit ‘sterile’, but it also prevented hot air getting into the cabin. However, this was far from ideal for the crew and patients, particularly when the outside temperature started to fall. SAS have just introduced non-return valves to replace the Leonardo cabin heater vents, which allow warm air into the cabin, but prevent any air re-circulating back into the heating ducts and into the cockpit.

One area where work is still ongoing is trying to prevent the fogging of spectacles, helmet visors and night vision goggles caused by the wearer having to also wear a mask. This is a particular problem for the two front seat crew who have been required to wear masks during flight and where the fogging can become a safety issue. Possible solutions have ranged from using a simple anti-fogging cloth to keep the lenses clear or using different types of mask that do not cause fogging.

Despite the issues caused by both the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit, the aircraft and engine manufacturers, Leonardo and Pratt & Whitney, have kept the supply of spares coming into SAS and that has enabled us to keep our AW169 aircraft available for operations as
much as possible. This was particularly evident in late 2020, when one of the engines needed changing much earlier than planned. Despite all the logistical barriers, a replacement engine and the associated spares were made available in quick time and so the aircraft was on the ground for the minimum time possible.