Memorial Hermann Life Flight® can now conduct flights under Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). IFR flights are flown by reference to aircraft flight instruments and advanced navigation systems and don’t require visual cues. This capability allows Life Flight crews to fly when weather conditions might restrict flight under Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, enabling them to respond to more requests and with fewer weather aborts than in the past.
Historically, inclement weather has prohibited approximately 600 Life Flight patient flights a year, nearly 20 percent of all patient flight requests. Many of these missed flights were due to cloud ceilings and visibility that, based on FAA requirements for Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) operations, prohibited safe flight. Because IFR flight uses advanced GPS routing, ground-based navigation aids and Air Traffic Control (ATC) radar guidance, en route cloud heights and visibility are not limiting factors.
According to Life Flight Chief Pilot Damon Sanger, being IFR capable, trained and equipped improves safety during every flight. “It gives our crews options when un-forecast weather is encountered. It allows us to make weather decisions for flight requests with greater certainty, which means we can deliver more dependable service to our partners in the community and patients in need of air transport,” says Sanger.” And being in radar contact and in constant communication with Air Traffic Control further enhances flight safety, which is one of the reasons airline flights in the United States are conducted using IFR.”
The Life Flight includes six IFR-certified Airbus EC-145 helicopters, equipped with some of the finest avionics available. Pilots at Life Flight undergo a rigorous training program to be certified for IFR service. The didactic and practical portions of the IFR training curriculum take approximately one month to complete and involve meeting the most challenging standards in aviation.
Using IFR capability, Life Flight crews can launch from select Life Flight bases and conduct Instrument Approach Procedures (IAP) to most airports in Southeast Texas.
Life Flight now utilizes 20 FAA-certified Helicopter Special Instrument Procedures (SIPs) to and from hospitals and heliports in the Greater Houston area, including Memorial Hermann Katy Hospital, Memorial Hermann Memorial City Medical Center, Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, Memorial Hermann Southwest Hospital, Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center, Memorial Hermann The Woodlands Medical Center, Crosby Fire Station #1 and the central EMS station in West Columbia.
Life Flight is the only helicopter air ambulance program in the Houston area with helicopter SIPs capability.*
In honor of the founder and first medical director of Life Flight, Dr. James “Red” Duke, Life Flight applied for and was assigned the national call sign “Red Duke” for use in all of Life Flight’s communications with Air Traffic Control while on IFR flights.
With this new capability, Life Flight continues in its tradition of being innovators in the Helicopter EMS industry. “While IFR is not possible in all cases, it is a significant factor that contributes to safer operation and will expand our scope of practice as a community service. We will be more available, more dependable and serve the community with greater safety due to IFR,” says Sanger.
*As of December 2018.
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