LifeFlight raising money to add airplane to its fleet of helicopters

A LifeFlight helicopter lands at Millinocket Regional Hospital.
Nick Sambides Jr. | BDN
A LifeFlight helicopter lands at Millinocket Regional Hospital.
Posted April 16, 2012, at 5:56 p.m.

LifeFlight of Maine is raising money to add an airplane to its fleet of two helicopters in response to growing demand for air ambulance services.

Adding a third aircraft is expected to allow the statewide service to treat up to 300 more patients a year by freeing up the maxed-out helicopters.

“As more and more physicians ask us to transport their most critical patients, our medical crews and helicopters are reaching their capacity,” LifeFlight of Maine Executive Director Tom Judge said in an email. “Last year, on average, we transported a patient every six hours. Adding a fixed-wing aircraft to our current resources will mean more patients have access to the care they need, when they need it.”

In 2009, LifeFlight was unable to care for 236 patients who needed air ambulance services because the helicopters already were occupied or unable to fly in bad weather.

The airplane LifeFlight is eyeing, a Beech King Air 200 twin-engine turboprop, could transport patients over longer distances more quickly and fly in weather conditions such as freezing rain and fog that the helicopters can’t handle, Judge wrote.

The helicopters are clocking 900 flight hours a year, far more than LifeFlight anticipated, according to Melissa Arndt, marketing and educational outreach manager for the LifeFlight Foundation, which raises money for the service.

“We’ve almost doubled the number of hours we expected to put on them,” Arndt said.

LifeFlight has raised about a third of the airplane’s $3.5 million price tag, which includes costs to retrofit the interior and purchase medical equipment, Arndt said. The foundation hopes to collect the full amount within the next year.

Established in 1998, LifeFlight is a nonprofit agency run by Eastern Maine Healthcare Systems in Bangor and Central Maine Healthcare Corp. of Lewiston.

In the last year, LifeFlight transported more than 1,400 patients from all over the state. Many of them suffered severe injuries in crashes.

While LifeFlight helicopters sometimes land at crash scenes, the bulk of the flights transfer critically ill or injured patients from rural hospitals to trauma centers in Bangor, Portland and Lewiston.

About 5 percent of LifeFlight’s patients wind up in Boston for treatment, Arndt said. Even with the addition of an airplane better suited to longer flights, “we don’t expect to see significantly more patients leaving the state,” she said.

The new airplane could be modified to land on the shorter runways typical of Maine’s rural airports but still have the range to accommodate a wider flight ring including Montreal, Pittsburgh, Pa., and Richmond, Va., for patients needing specialized services unavailable in Maine.

Adding the new aircraft also is expected to improve LifeFlight’s coverage in southern Maine by cutting down on long flights by the Lewiston-based helicopter.

“The same crew and the same equipment are going to be aboard either aircraft, so the care the patient receives will be the same,” Arndt said.

Airplanes are ideal for trips topping 175 miles, she explained. While fixed-wing aircraft require ambulances to transfer patients from the hospital to the airport and vice versa — the helicopters land on hospital helipads — their speed over longer flights makes up for the extra time, she said.

“In Maine, our typical helicopter flight is much longer than the national average,” Judge wrote in the email. “A fixed-wing aircraft is faster and more efficient over these longer distances, helping the patient get to the care they need sooner.”

Maine’s emergency medical services network already includes airplanes operating out of airports in Rockland and Caribou, though LifeFlight’s crew receives a higher level of critical care training, Arndt said.

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