As head of Dartmouth’s mission control center for Medivac flights, Mark Pippy spends a lot of time grappling with New England weather.
“Oh, wait ten minutes: it is going to change,” Pippy jokes. “It is always partly cloudy to partly sunny, with a chance of showers, and there will be darkness. And you got it 100% of the time.”
Pippy has spent the past 19 years dispatching copters from Dartmouth’s Lebanon campus and a unit based in Manchester. Together, they fly around 1,400 calls each year. Now, he’s a got a new GPS tool to help.
“It does help because on days like today, where it is kind of crappy outside, we can sometimes get there when we couldn’t have before. “
Outside, an EC-135 takes off from the helipad, the $5 million ambulance cutting through a thick gray sky.
For this call, rather than the pilot flying a direct path, the unit will follow a new navigation system. It’s a pre-determined flight pattern, much like commercial airlines use.
Dartmouth hired a GPS software company to map out the routes. They connect helipads at 30 hospitals across Vermont and New Hampshire.
Kyle Madigan runs operations for Dartmouth’s air ambulance service, known as DHART (Dartmouth Hitchcock Advanced Response Team). He has a big map of the new GPS routes in his office, and explains how his crew would typically fly on a good-weather day from Lebanon to the hospital in Berlin.
“Beautiful flight…you’d fly right near Mount Washington. And that flight is about a 35 minute flight if you are able to fly point A to point B.”
But fog or storms would make that flight impossible. With the new software, pilots can now fly, albeit a different path…one that has been mapped in detail and entered into the copter’s instrument panel.
“It is going to take us near Littleton, before we can then turn to the right and cut across to Berlin. And it is going to add some time, but by adding time, we are also adding that safety factor into it.”
Dartmouth is the first medevac system in the country to use this technology. Madigan says it will allow them to complete 140 extra missions each year.
“And by picking up the extra transports, we are then able to offset the costs that we incurred in building the route structure.”
That bill was $600,000. Your bill if you have the unfortunate need to be airlifted remains around $15,000.
Even with that price tag, DHART isn’t a money-maker for the hospital. It operates right around break-even, with high costs for equipment, fuel and 9 full-time pilots, including Doug Moore.
He’s been here ten years. Before that, he was an air force combat pilot for two decades. He deadpans that completing both legs of the trip, regardless of weather, is just as important for his current gig.
“In the military I could just land in a field and wait it out and I was collecting per diem and having lunch. Now, I’m making the patient suffer, and indeed jeopardizing the patient.”
Moore says even with the navigational system, safety and common sense will come first.
Then a call comes in from dispatch.
“Rendezvous at Cheshire Medical Center. Back to DHMC. 15:23.”
“DHART 1. Checking weather,” responds Moore.
It is time to put the new technology to work.