The East Anglian Air Ambulance has embarked on a landmark new era by taking delivery of a new helicopter capable of flying at night.

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The new helicopter’s night-time kit

In order to be able to fly at night the new helicopter has the following equipment:

Night vision goggles for the crew members

The whole of the cockpit and all the equipment used by the medical staff has been made compatible with night vision goggles, which basically means very dim lighting.

There are four extra lights on the exterior of the aircraft, which can be used on the final approach to the landing site.

A power line detection system, which detects the electromagnetic frequency in a cable that is on. It sends an oral and visual signal to the pilot that the aircraft is getting close to a wire. Wires are difficult to see even during the daytime and so this is an important safety feature.

The air ambulance will also have access to a digital moving map which has been overlaid with information about power lines. To date only the military has had the full use of this, but the EAAA has got approval to use it too.

The charity will tonight start training its crew in night flying, with the aim of becoming fully operational to fly in the dark by the end of the year.

If approved by the authorities, the emergency night flights will mean the charity can treat more people who become seriously ill or injured by flying out doctors and critical care paramedics to carry out life-saving operations on scene and by flying patients quickly to hospital or the most appropriate trauma centre.

Tim Page, chief executive of the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA), said: “Our move into night flying means that during the winter months when people drive to and from work in the dark, should an accident or medical emergency happen, we will be there, bringing the hospital emergency room to them, wherever they are in East Anglia.”

The move, which needs approval from the Civil Aviation Authority, would also be a national landmark in air ambulance operations.

While Bonds Air Services, which has the contract to provide the EAAA’s two helicopters, already provides a night-time air ambulance in Scotland, this is only able to fly to and from lit landing sites.

Other air ambulances have also been able to operate at in darkness using other aircraft already authorised for night flying, for example a police helicopter.

However, if approved by the CAA later this year, the EAAA will become the first air ambulance in the country to provide night-time Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS).

The new aircraft, Eurocopter’s EC135T2, will be based in Cambridge, but will cover Cambridgeshire, Norfolk, Suffolk and Bedfordshire at night.

Once a second new helicopter is delivered at the end of 2013, the charity will make a decision on whether or not to also introduce night operations at its other base, at Norwich International Airport.

While exact times of operations are yet to be decided, it is thought that the charity will at first concentrate on starting at 6am in the morning and finish at midnight.

Andrew Egerton Smith, chairman and founder of the EAAA, said: “The reason for that is the cost and the fact that the majority of accidents happen between those times.

“There are very few that happen at two or three in the morning and we will still have crews able to go out by land vehicles.

“We may well look at a later date at changing those hours.”

He added: “The only reason we have been able to do this right now is down to the people and companies of East Anglia who have supported us.”

Air ambulances in Germany and the Netherlands which have introduced night flying have been able to attend around 30pc more cases and the charity is hoping it will see a similar increase in the amount of cases they can attend.

Dr Tom Hurst, a consultant in intensive care at King’s College Hospital in London who flies with the air ambulance, said: “At the moment if we’re called out near dusk then it’s always on the pilot’s mind that he needs to get back before it gets dark and sometimes that can mean we have only five or 10 minutes to make a decision about whether to stay with a patient or return with the helicopter.

“Right from when we become operational at night it will make a huge difference because that time pressure will be removed.”

Dr Hurst added: “There’s also a potential role for this aircraft to be used for very urgent retrieval work from general district hospitals, for example if a patient needs to be transferred very urgently, normally for neurosurgery but also for cardiac surgery.

“In an area as large as East Anglia the air ambulance can get involved and speed up those transfers.”

The crews will now undergo extensive training and it is expected that life-saving missions by helicopter during the hours of darkness will begin by the end of the year.

Pete Cummings, of EAAA helicopter operator Bond Air Services, said he was aiming for a December 1 deadline, but that safety was the overriding priority and would always come first.

He said: “We shall start with practising bare night flying to get the paramedics up to speed, but this is a new environment for the air ambulance in the UK.”

Part of the preparations will include lighting up the helipad at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital so it can be used in the dark, as well as the helipad near Addenbrooke’s Hospital, in Cambridge.

The cost of this, and adding lighting to any other hospital helipads which will be identified as frequently used for emergency night-time operations, will “probably, possibly” by met by the charity, in negotiation with NHS trusts.

The training will also see crews identifying suitable night-time landing sites at cities, towns and eventually villages across the region in an attempt to take as much risk out of flying in the dark as possible.

For further information on the work of the East Anglian Air Ambulance visit www.eaaa.org.uk or for details on how to volunteer or make a donation call 08450 669 999.

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