The Civil Aviation Authority recently announced that emergency services in Gloucestershire, Worcestershire, Dorset and Somerset, Sussex and London will benefit from a share of more than £200,000 of funding to allow air ambulances to land more safely in poor weather conditions. Mario Carretta, Unit Chief Pilot, tells us more…

This announcement sees our airbase at Henstridge Airfield become one of the helicopter landing sites selected to benefit from the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) Programme, run by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) and Department of Transport.

Current situation

DSAA’s flight operations are bound by CAA regulations that stipulate the minimum allowable cloud base to allow us to continue flying visually with reference to ground features. If the cloud base is below the minima, then we can fly in cloud using our flight instruments, but only if there is a means to safely leave the cloud at our destination; without that means we are unable to fly with the cloud base below visual minima.

For DSAA, this applies to visibility and cloud levels at Henstridge Airfield primarily, and then at destination locations. Currently, when cloud level is below minimum visual levels, in accordance with CAA regulations, critical care teams are unable to travel by air to reach patients in need. It also means that if we have been out on a mission and the weather deteriorates back at base, we end up stranded in a field, at a hospital or another airfield. This has happened on many occasions and has resulted in the aircraft being offline for the rest of the day and most of the next morning, as the oncoming crew have had to make their way to the aircraft’s location to pick it up.

The future

Traditionally, aircraft flying to an airfield have used ground-based systems to enable them to make an approach to their destination. The aircraft can pick up signals from the ground-based system that then interact with onboard systems to give the pilot directional and height cues, enabling them to make a safe approach to the runway; autopilot systems on modern aircraft are also able to use this information to fly these approaches without pilot intervention.

With the advent of GNSS satellites and the 3D information they can provide, airfield approaches can now be made without having to rely on the ground-based systems, if the aircraft is fitted with the appropriate equipment. Point-in Space (PinS) approaches are a type of GNSS approach that will allow helicopters the flexibility to safely leave cloud while not necessarily being constrained to airfield destinations. This means that hospitals can have PinS approaches, which will allow air ambulances to operate to/from them when cloud conditions would normally preclude flight.

‘Peggy’, our AW169 helicopter is equipped to carry out GNSS approaches, and all our pilots are licensed to fly them. We are delighted with the news that Henstridge is now part of the GNSS programme as it fully supports our commitment to reaching more patients who need critical care, initially through implementing a PinS approach at Henstridge and then at hospitals within our operating area.