SALT LAKE CITY — "She loves to fly," AirMed program manager Robert Stantus said Friday as he took a casual flight up Red Butte Canyon in the team's state-of-the-art helicopter, smiling and showing off the chopper's features to a paramedic on her inaugural ride.
The new American Eurocopter EC145 joined University Hospital's fleet on Dec. 15 — a bigger, stronger and safer replacement to its 13-year-old counterpart. The EC145 is specifically engineered to perform in mountainous altitudes, and with considerably more space inside the craft, it will enhance the care and comfort of patients en route to the hospital.
"It's actually 10 cubic-feet bigger on the inside," Stantus said. "It will be the largest medical cabin in the state of Utah, and the most capable aircraft."
The tough twin-engine machine is equipped to carry more weight, allowing a third medical professional to fly, and in extreme cases, a second patient can be brought on board, he said.
In choosing a new helicopter, the team took test rides up to Snowbird Ski and Summer Resort, fully loaded with crew, equipment and fuel, said pilot Jeff Dansie. AirMed's three additional helicopters are designed to operate at sea level, he said, putting them under added strain as they operate in Utah.
"Already at the helipad, we're right at about the 5,000-foot level," Dansie said. "It really is one of the best helicopters for this high-altitude environment and flying around here, especially with being able to respond to the ski resorts."
Stantus said the older choppers weren't capable of landing for rescue missions in areas such as Snowbird's Hidden Peak, which has an altitude of 11,000 feet.
"Having the power in the mountains is very important to make sure we can do our mission," he said.
Both Stantus and Dansie are quick to point out the new chopper won't change the nature of emergencies they are able to respond to, but crews will be safer as they go.
The new bird is the first in the state to feature clamshell doors that open at the back of the craft to the large cabin, allowing the chopper to carry its own gurney system and giving the medical crew better access to patients, Stantus said.
The gurney can be easily unloaded from the back of the helicopter and wheeled directly into the hospital. In smaller crafts, the patient is moved from the helicopter onto a cart, which then drives down to the door of the hospital where the patient is again moved onto a gurney.
"We've been able to knock out one of those transfers," Dansie said. "It makes it that much easier on the patient, and it's also faster."
Stantus described the cramped conditions of most medical choppers as "like working in the back of a Volkswagen Bug." The EC145's cabin is large enough that medics can kneel down on either side of the patient, even with an added crew member.
The tight-knit AirMed crew anxiously awaited updates through the two-year process of acquiring the new chopper, which represents a $7 million investment, Stantus said.
"As the aircraft was manufactured, we were able to get pictures," he said. "All along, we kept them updated with the status of what was going on, and there was certainly an excitement about getting something new."
Most of all, the medics hope the new chopper will help them do "the best job possible" caring for patients, Stantus said.
Each crew is made up of a high-risk obstetrical nurse, a neonatal nurse, a nurse for adults, a paramedic and a pilot, who spend each 12-hour shift ready to respond to medical calls at a moment's notice. As they wait, they evaluate safety conditions for possible flights, ensure the rig is stocked with supplies and charge all equipment.
Doug Morgan, a flight paramedic for six years, has taken two flights so far on the new helicopter. Morgan said he's noticed a big difference in his ability to work in the larger cabin.
"It makes everything easier," he said. "Procedures are easier. It makes patient access easier, and the safety features of our new aircraft makes it all safer."