WILTSHIRE Air Ambulance Charitable Trust (WAACT) is leading the way with the selection of its new helicopter.
The charity has chosen the Bell 429 helicopter to be its air ambulance when the contract for the existing shared helicopter with Wiltshire Police ends in December this year.
This will be the first Bell 429 to operate as an air ambulance in the UK, there are currently 50 operating as air ambulances worldwide including ten in Europe.
WAACT spent 18 months reviewing what type of helicopter to select and three helicopter providers were shortlisted and invited to tender for the contract.
On Tuesday the charity signed a ten year contact with Heli Charter, Bell’s UK agent, to lease a Bell 429 helicopter. The charity said the Bell 429 is the world’s newest and most advanced light, twin engine helicopter in service, equipped with the latest in flight technology.
The current Wiltshire Air Ambulance flies at night thanks to the specialist police equipment on board and the new Wiltshire Air Ambulance will also fly at night.
The hours of operation are still to be finalised as the charity is researching all the incidents it flies to but the charity’s chief executive, David Philpott, said at the moment the default position is 19 hours a day, the same as the shared police helicopter.
South Western Ambulance Service NHS Trust will continue to provide the paramedics for the new Wiltshire Air Ambulance and there will be an increase of medics on board the helicopter. Heli Charter will provide the pilots.
The cost of having its own helicopter will increase for WAACT from the existing £700,000 towards the shared police helicopter to £2.5 million a year.
Chairman of the charity Richard Youens, who lives in Rushall, said he was confident that the money could be raised. The charity already has £2.5 million in reserves and last year raised £1.9 million.
Mr Youens said: “We have increased our fundraising staff and I think we will be able to raise the £2.5 million, but it’s going to be hard work and we need to keep the air ambulance in the front of people’s minds all the time. It seems to be at the front of people’s minds whenever I talk to people. It’s a very popular charity in Wiltshire and we need it for God’s sake. In Wiltshire there’s a lot of open space that road ambulances can’t get to.”
Chris Lear, a trustee in the charity and chairman of its aviation committee and a pilot himself, said the new air ambulance contract will ensure the helicopter is flying 365 days a year even when it needs repairs or servicing as Heli Charter will provide a replacement helicopter and there are financial penalties in the contract if the company doesn’t perform. When the current shared police helicopter is being serviced there is no replacement helicopter operating for several weeks and surrounding air ambulances attend incidents in Wiltshire.
Mr Lear, who lives in Mile Elm, said the charity chose the Bell 429 because it offered the best equipment and facilities for an air ambulance and it is also faster - at 150 knots – than the other models the trustees considered.
Bell is an American company with its headquarters in Forth Worth, Texas. The helicopter that will become the Wiltshire Air Ambulance will be built at its plant in Mirabel, Canada, in the first half of this year. Testing and training for the crews in Wiltshire will take place in the autumn so that the new air ambulance will go live by December 1.
The National Grid in the UK is using a Bell 429 helicopter for its survey work. Bell wants to break into the UK charity market and the contract with WAACT has begun that process.
Ken Wills, chairman and chief executive of Heli Charter, said: “By selecting the Bell 429, Wiltshire has shown vision. It’s a new generation aircraft, which is far and above the leader in its class. It will provide the best possible service that the people of Wiltshire could have.
Rob Pennell, regional sales manager for Bell Helicopter and who was formerly chief pilot for London Ambulance Service, said WAACT was “making an investment in the safety and wellbeing of its community” with the Bell 429 helicopter.
He added: “It means a huge amount for Bell in the UK. It really is truly fantastic.”
The base of the new Wiltshire Air Ambulance is unknown. Mr Youens said he would like it to be at the current base of the shared helicopter at Wiltshire Police’s headquarters in Devizes but if that is not possible the charity was looking for a new location in the Devizes area and about 12 potential sites had been identified.
The current shared helicopter with Wiltshire Police is a collaboration that has been in place for the past 23 years. The partnership is ending in December after the Government announced that all police forces will be part of a National Police Air Service where helicopters are shared between police forces.