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Rescue copters ready for instrument flying

CHARLESTON, W.Va.-- An intermittent drizzle fell over Charleston on Monday, and Yeager Airport was socked in by a layer of low-lying clouds that hung down almost to the level of the tarmac.

Ordinarily, HealthNet helicopters can't fly in that kind of weather. But a HealthNet chopper from Beckley was flying a patient rescue mission, cutting through the low-hanging soup on instruments.

HealthNet Aeromedical Services President Clinton Burley said HealthNet now has two rescue helicopters equipped and certified for instrument flying.

Under ordinary circumstances, HealthNet pilots can only fly when they can see where they're going. But Burley said the new helicopters allow pilots to fly in cloud cover, following their instruments.

"On a day like today, we wouldn't have been able to fly patients," Burley said Monday, while showing off one of HealthNet's new choppers on the murky, drizzly day at Yeager Airport.

"This will undoubtedly save lives."

Founded in 1986, HealthNet operates nine rescue helicopters in West Virginia, Ohio and Kentucky. Six of the choppers are in West Virginia, where they serve the CAMC hospital system, Cabell-Huntington Hospital and West Virginia University Healthcare system.

HealthNet helicopters are stationed in Beckley, Ripley, Hamlin, Buckhannon, Morgantown and Martinsburg, strategically located to be able to access most parts of the state quickly.

Although many of the helicopters end up taking their seriously injured patients to CAMC, Burley said the helicopters are not stationed in Charleston.

"We don't fly patients out of Charleston, we fly patients into Charleston," he explained.

Helicopters stationed in Beckley and Morgantown are now equipped for instrument flying.

"We wanted the system to be anchored north and south with instrument-capable aircraft," Burley said. "We've really ramped up the technology in our aircraft."

Burley said HealthNet transports about 4,000 patients a year. In nearly 30 years of operation, he said, HealthNet has flown almost 70,000 missions without an accident.

James Dunn, HealthNet's aviation manager, said the instrument-capable helicopters will drastically increase the circumstances under which the helicopters can operate. If the weather is too bad for a conventional helicopter to fly, an instrument-equipped aircraft can plot an instrument course through the cloud cover to Yeager or another local airport.

If the pilot can see the hospital once over the target, he or she can go ahead and land at the hospital's helipad, Burley said. If not, the pilot can land at the airport and an ambulance can take the patient the rest of the way to the hospital.

Burley said HealthNet is buying new helicopters for its fleet, at a cost of about $4 million to about $7 million per aircraft. The network employs about 40 pilots.

Reach Rusty Marks at rustymarks@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1215.

 


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