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Types of Air Ambulances

Welcome to the ninth installment in our Air Medical Resource series about the Air Ambulance. In this resource, we’ll look at the two main aircraft types used for transporting patients.

The life-preserving services that the world’s air ambulances provide can be classified broadly into two main categories: rotary-wing and fixed-wing.

Rotary-Wing Air Ambulances

The name rotary-wing refers to the rotating “wings” (or blades) that are used by helicopters. So, if you hear the term “rotary-wing” in regards to an air ambulance, it’s referring to a helicopter.

Helicopter ambulances are used in a variety of situations, primarily dealing with emergency response. Hospitals utilize them to carry specially-trained air EMS teams out to a location where a patient has been injured (like an accident scene), and then to escort the patient safely and quickly back to the hospital.

Helicopters are used for transporting patients over relatively short distances. A major benefit that rotary-wing air ambulances have over fixed-wing air ambulances is that they are able to land in a much greater variety of locations.

While they can’t safely land everywhere, helicopter ambulances can often land on roads, paved areas, or in parks or fields in the rural countryside or in cramped urban environments. This allows them to come directly to the patient’s location rather than needing to be transported first to an airport or airstrip as is typically the case with fixed-wing air ambulances.

However, they have shorter operating ranges and thus are generally used “locally” for emergencies (HEMS) where the patient is in critical condition and both time and receiving high quality care is a factor.

Fixed-Wing Air Ambulances

When speaking about aircraft, the term “fixed-wing” refers to wings that do not move, or are “fixed” in a specific location on the aircraft. Fixed-wing air ambulances may either be propeller driven or jet engine powered.

In terms of transport distance, propeller driven aircraft are generally used for shorter distance flight (though usually longer than it would be reasonable to use a rotary-wing ambulance for).

Longer-distance air ambulances are usually business jets, such as Lear jets, that have been converted into housing high-tech medical equipment and may have had other alterations to better enable them to accommodate a patient and a medical crew.

Air ambulance jets are a necessity for quickly and comfortably transporting patients across countries, oceans, and continents. Not all long distance transports are flown by jets, however. Propeller-driven aircraft called turboprops sometimes are used for long-distance and/or international transports as well. These type of air ambulances are utilized frequently — though not always — in rural parts of countries like the United States and Australia.

In addition to being able to travel longer distances before needing to refuel, fixed-wing air ambulances have more spacious interiors and can carry more medical equipment and personnel than helicopters. They can cover these distances faster, and operate in weather conditions that rotary-wing air ambulances cannot. In addition, there is generally less turbulence experienced at the higher altitudes that fixed-wing aircraft can travel in.

Whether the fixed-wing transport is carried out using a jet or turboprop aircraft all depends on the fleet of the air ambulance service handling the transport and the parameters of the transport.

Other Uses

Another specialized utility that helicopters and airplanes are used for in the healthcare world is rapidly, safely transporting organs for transplants.

In other situations, air ambulances may be used to fly additional medical staff or specialists to support a ground EMS team, even if a ground ambulance is to be used to transport the patient.

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