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Cornwall Air Ambulance - The First Captain's Log

1st April, 2012 will mark the 25th Anniversary of Cornwall's First Air Ambulance. No doubt many events are being planned to officially mark the date of the introduction of the service, however, I'm pre-empting the party by suggesting that the celebrations should begin this autumn and the name heading the guest list should be Geoff Newman. Never heard of Him? Read on...

Somewhere, someone had to have the spark that ignited the idea which evolved into the genesis of an air ambulance service across the UK. It wasn't an NHS manager, an Ambulance Service officer or the Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust; it was our good friend, Geoff Newman. He was the man with the vision to think differently and yet he isn't mentioned or given credit on any website that I've Googled from Wiki, the Air Ambulance Association and even that of the Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust.

Geoff was an ex-naval helicopter pilot, working as an Aviation Consultant for a consortium of western oil companies. In 1986, he had been working to support a bid for a contract with the Chinese Government to supply a Search And Rescue Helicopter Service for the Chinese coastline. It was at this time that he began researching the ways in which public helicopter services could work as an Air Ambulance. He knew of the successful German model, established in 1973 which by 1986, had around 20 helicopters serving the German public and questioned, why, as an advanced and aviation oriented country with Navy and RAF SAR helicopter services, were we not doing the same?

Air Ambulance flying Air Ambulance flying Clifftop Rescue Beach Rescue Sports field rescue

It was one of those, "I was there when" moments when we first heard about his radical idea. One Sunday afternoon in late summer of 1986, we met up with Lesley and Geoff at Gillan, near Manaccan and went for walk down to the cove and let the kids and dogs work off steam while we sat on the wall having a chat. Geoff was pre-occupied and said that if he told us something would we promise to keep quiet about it; he confided his thoughts and where his research had taken him. No one would have guessed that within six months of a conversation between friends, we would see the first Air Ambulance flying across our skies!

Geoff's initial thought was for an Air Ambulance to be funded by the NHS, but this wasn't realistic in the long term with the unpredictable and enormous costs of the venture threatening allocated budgets. However, ambulances carry patients and the NHS would provide an on-going supply! There were complex issues of funding and command and control, plus a helicopter wouldn't go amiss. For funding, Geoff looked at the way the RNLI was supported entirely by public donation, also possible commercial sponsorship. Command and control would have to be entirely with the ambulance service, and as for the helicopter: Geoff called Stephen Bond, head of Bond Helicopters and explained his ideas. Stephen Bond listened. In response he didn't say, " The NHS will never agree, go away ", but he asked the pivotal question , "What do you need to make the most of this opportunity?". Geoff gambled on his reply, " I want one of your MBB105 helicopters fitted out for an ambulance role, free of charge for three months". Bond probably spluttered but agreed and without doubt, it was his belief, commitment and business sense that eventually led to a nationwide network of air ambulances.

Cornwall was geographically perfect for the blueprint to be tested. I recall writing press releases at the time of the launch about call out and response times for emergency vehicles with communications being critical in the summer months when the roads are choked with holiday traffic and there is a 50% increase in population. Targets for response times couldn't be compared to the rest of the country until the First Air Ambulance added a new dimension to Cornwall's health care service. In Geoff's words, "People think it's speed over distance, but in fact, it's speed over a problem. The helicopter has been able to relieve pressure on ground ambulances".

Geoff was the only pilot for the early months of the service and the first patient he air-lifted was a student with a severe spinal injury from the beach at Porthcurno. She had jumped off the rocks and fallen badly. A perfect example of where the helicopter provided exceptional service to the patient and the Ambulance Service. Without, she would have been carried on a stretcher for half a mile across the sands and then have to endure a 40 minute trip by ambulance through twisting lanes. Instead, 15 minutes to Treliske and a much safer ride.

From an uncertain start, with one helicopter flying a five day week in Cornwall, there are now 30 helicopters in service, used by 18 Air Ambulance charities. Today, on average, an emergency air ambulance takes off every ten minutes somewhere across the UK, flying 365 days a year in daylight hours, attending accidents and medical trauma. Whenever I hear the beating pulse of rotor blades ahead of sighting the familiar red and yellow helicopter circling for a place to land, I'm reassured to know that when emergency medical care is needed, help is at hand. We all sleep more easily knowing that a highly trained team of paramedics can be dropped close by to take care of us - none of us know when it might be our turn...and there is still no official funding!

Cornwall had the first dedicated Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) to be operational in the UK. The initial funding provided by the local health authority was withdrawn in October of that year and shortly afterward the charity, then known as the First Air Ambulance Service Trust was formed. The service is financed by public fundraising and donations. In 1987, it cost £250K to provide the service for a year. In 2011, the cost of keeping the service flying is expected to be around £30K a week, or looking at it another way, around a million and half pounds every year. Missions flown to date - over 22,000! The machine can be airborne in two minutes of a 999 call and can cover the entire county in less than 20 minutes.

Time forgets names and faces and we take our emergency services as a given, however, it wasn't until I spoke to Geoff that it struck me how dangerous every mission is for the crew. Once ambulance control receives the 999 call, the logistics of each operation are singular. There is always a level of risk and as skilled as the pilot will be, he is required to manoeuvre the helicopter in unfamiliar terrain to allow the paramedics to carry out their role and without knowing precisely what to expect until they land. On this 25th Anniversary we should be reminded of Geoff's pioneering role as we owe him our thanks- had he not been living in Cornwall in 1986, perhaps another county would be claiming credit for the title, 'First Air Ambulance".

Cornwall Air Ambulance website
Air Ambulance Association website

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