What does it take to make the grade to become a Thames Valley Air Ambulance Pilot – one of the most technically demanding roles at the charity?
Pilot Dave answers the questions submitted by our supporters and followers on our Facebook, Twitter and Instagram accounts.
How did you build up the hours? Was with military or civilian and what advice would you give?
I joined the RAF in 1991 and had 16 amazing years including operational tours in Northern Ireland, Iraq, Afghanistan and Africa. My civilian career started with six years flying for the Police in the Air Support role before joining Thames Valley Air Ambulance to fly in the Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS).
As for advice, in the early days take whatever opportunity there is to fly and learn; thereafter, maintain the skills and knowledge required, even after 30 years you are still learning!
Why did you apply to be a HEMS pilot?
In both my Military and Police roles I found the
casualty evacuations most rewarding, so from an early stage I targeted HEMS as
a career; it is amazing to know that you are part of a specialist team that
could make a difference to so many people and their families.
What’s the most difficult landing you’ve ever done?
The civilian flying environment is definitely less hostile than my military days, but the landings can be equally as demanding for different reasons.
We often land on motorways, school playing fields, urban parks, open rural landscapes, industrial sites, etc… We also operate and land at night using night vision systems to assist us when identifying obstructions in the dark.
How much of the flying is done by automatic pilot and how much manual flying do you do?
Vast majority is manually flown, in particular all take-offs and landings; the en-route phase can be flown on auto-pilot.
We also have the capability to fly (and make an approach to an airfield) in cloud, which is flown on instruments using the aircraft’s automatic systems; all are practiced and tested periodically to maintain the skills.
How do you mentally separate yourself from the ‘job’ you’re going to?
Good question! My primary role is to get the Paramedic and Doctor to the scene of the incident, maintain the safety / security of the helicopter at the landing site and to prepare the aircraft should we convey the patient.
If required, I assist the team with their medical kit and help load the patient on the aircraft. To achieve all if this, you must (somehow) find a way not to allow the clinical scenario to affect you; experience definitely helps with this.
How do I become an air ambulance pilot? What experience is required?
There are minimum requirements for a pilot to fly
on HEMS especially as the aircraft commander. In addition, as the role is
generally dynamic in that you are responding to an on-going incident, relevant
experience and background is taken into account when selecting and training a new
Worst part of the job? And don’t say there aren’t any bad parts!
Wow, tough one this. Tasks that have certain
parallels to your own life can be challenging, i.e. as a parent going to a
paediatric job, or as a pilot going to a downed aircraft scenario. Also,
working numerous Christmas Days, public holidays, etc…, but then that’s part
of working with the emergency services.
Question from a 9 year old daughter; do you worry about flying at night? How can you know where to land? Are you scared?
Thank you for the question; to be honest, I don’t ‘worry’ about flying at night as I have had several years of experience doing it; however, we do have additional techniques to learn and practice on a regular basis.
When we receive a task at night, we look at the area of the incident on computer based mapping and plan a suitable landing site; when overhead the incident, we conduct a thorough recce, identify the relevant obstructions using night vision goggles and then fly an appropriate approach.
Am I ‘scared’, probably not… as we are extra careful!
How long have you been with the air ambulance and how long have you been a pilot?
I have been flying for 30 years, both military and
civilian. I joined Thames Valley Air Ambulance in 2013 and have flown over 700
missions so far!
Can you tell us about air traffic priority during an emergency incident, do air ambulances have priority over other aircraft?
On a HEMS mission, we hold the highest category of
flight known as ‘Alpha’. If for example we were tasked near to Heathrow
Airport, air traffic control may delay other aircraft landing and taking off to
give us priority in the area.
Anything else you would like to share?
Although not a question asked by someone… if you were ever to meet me at a landing site or Charity function, I prefer strong tea, lemon drizzle cake and enjoy playing golf, should you want to invite me to your Captain’s charity day…!
Thank you to Dave for taking the time out to answer these questions, and to all our supporters for posting them.
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