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Life Flight's IFR Certification Provides Multiple Benefits to Community Hospitals and Pre-Hospital Providers

Since Memorial Hermann Life Flight® made its debut as the first air ambulance service in Texas and only the second in the nation in 1976, more than 130,000 critically ill and injured patients across the region have reaped the benefit of what is often the quickest transport available to receive life-saving care. Even under the most difficult and chaotic of scenarios – from a multiple vehicle car crash in the furthest outreaches of Harris County, to the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina where Life Flight crews were the first to arrive to transport the sickest of the sick – the unmistakable red and black helicopter descending from above is a welcome relief for first responders and hospital workers when critical transport is needed most.

However, even as the most storied and experienced air ambulance program in the region, Life Flight has missed, on average, at least 600 flights per year because of weather. “It’s a difficult situation for everyone on our team when we have to abort a flight because of unexpected weather during visual flight rules (VFR) flights, particularly if the conditions are safe for operations using IFR,” said Christopher “Todd” Grubbs, chief pilot. Now, as the first program based in Southeast Texas to receive authority to conduct flights under instrument flight rules (IFR) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the team expects to slash that number of missed flights by up to 40 percent.

“Being IFR-certified is not a perfect solution, and there will still be instances when we cannot fly,” Grubb said. “But, we are now able to fly in conditions that previously we could not using VFR. By achieving this certification, we are poised to make an enormous stride in safety and a have a great effect on the helicopter emergency medical service community in Southeast Texas.”

For outlying hospitals and emergency responders who rely on Life Flight as the premier patient air transport service for the critically ill or injured, the new certification provides a host of benefits. Most importantly, said Grubbs, Life Flight is now simply able to fly more in varying degrees of inclement weather. “In almost 100 of the 600 missed flights in the past year for Life Flight, we had to abort because the weather worsened unexpectedly. Now, we are authorized to depart under IFR from charted IFR runways. Our systems allow our aircraft autopilot to be engaged shortly after takeoff is performed.”

In addition, flights under IFR can go at the maximum cruise speed and are not limited by cloud heights or visibility during en route segments, so transport is quicker and any lost time can be made up, added Grubbs. “IFR gives us the certainty of arrival that VFR does not,” he said.

For many outlying hospitals, this means air ambulance service at times when it couldn’t exist before, as Life Flight can now retrieve patients during inclement weather in regions that are only served by VFR air ambulance services locally. “As one example, we can now fly to Beaumont during inclement weather conditions and provide service to all patients. If the community needs to transport a patient by air to the Houston area, we may be able to respond when their nearest air ambulance service cannot.”

According to Eric von Wenckstern, administrative director of Life Flight, the program’s new capabilities because of IFR certification have the potential to positively affect patient outcomes across the region by allowing air transport versus ground transport in many cases. “Many physicians rightfully worry about the length of time it takes a critically ill patient to be transported by ground, and they are forced to carefully weigh the risks and benefits. We aim to make that decision easier by continuing to expand the services Life Flight offers.”

Life Flight Adding Proprietary GPS Procedures to Further Enhance IFR Capabilities

In an effort to maximize Life Flight’s new instrument flight rules (IFR) capabilities and further reduce patient transport time, the program is adding its own proprietary global positioning system (GPS) procedures to several of the hospitals and heliports in the Greater Houston area. These procedures will allow for direct takeoff and landing at multiple locations that historically might be restricted to use under visual flight rules (VFR) only.

The new system will be a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approved IFR approach network, which will include most hospitals within the Memorial Hermann Health System, the Life Flight fueling sites and a number of emergency medical service (EMS) rendezvous sites.

“This FAA-approved system allows us to fly approaches to a number of facilities, and can dramatically reduce transport time,” said Christopher “Todd” Grubbs, chief pilot of Life Flight. “If you are in the clouds and can’t fly visually, you have to do an approach procedure approved by the FAA. By creating our own approach network, we can land directly at Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center and other locations instead of landing at Hobby Airport and ground transporting the patient from there.”

The new, proprietary system allows for much more flight flexibility, said Grubbs. “By implementing an instrument approach network with our hospital and EMS partners in the community, we will also be authorized to depart from those facilities using IFR and transition into the safety of the Air Traffic Control system,” he said. “It coincides perfectly with our System’s vision to be innovators, promote growth, enhance patient safety and achieve operational excellence.”