New medical helicopter arrives at UChicago Medicine

New UCAN helicopter

Chicago’s only hospital-based medical flight program began flying a more advanced helicopter this month.

The Airbus EC145 replaces the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network (UCAN)’s Dauphin N model helicopter, which has been in use since 1990. The retiring helicopter has transported more than 13,000 patients across the region during its tenure at the University of Chicago Medicine. It has also been featured dozens of times on major television shows including ER and ChicagoMed.

The new helicopter, like its predecessor, is designed to transport patients who require critical medical care, often from community hospitals or from the scene of an accident. The new UCAN helicopter, initially configured to be a corporate aircraft, includes a custom medical interior with advanced cockpit avionics.

According to Airbus, the EC145 is the “market leader for police and rescue missions.” The medium-sized twin-engine helicopter is well suited for medical intensive-care transports because of its wider cabin and its ability to take off and fly while carrying a significant weight. Across the United States, the EC145 transports more than 100,000 patients each year.

“This aircraft makes better use of the internal space,” said Ira Blumen, MD, professor of medicine and medical director for UCAN. “It has a slightly shorter airframe than our previous helicopter, but it loads like an ambulance, from the rear instead of from the side. The wide clamshell rear doors and collapsible, ambulance-style litter make getting a patient in and out of the helicopter quicker and easier.”

The new air ambulance can accommodate three or four medical crew members — flight nurses and physicians — who are positioned around the patient.

“We could not fit four caregivers in the patient compartment of our previous aircraft,” said Blumen, who has led UCAN for 31 years. “The new cabin space has room for additional equipment for patients who require life-sustaining tools. It lets our clinical staff engage more in the patient’s care while they’re flying.”

UCAN is the only medical helicopter program in the Chicagoland area that always flies with a nurse-physician or nurse-nurse team. It typically transports one patient at a time, but it can, in rare cases, fly two patients at once.

UChicago Medicine started the first hospital-based air-medical transport program in Chicago in 1983. This is its fifth dedicated helicopter.

The new helicopter has multiple safety features, including a digital autopilot, which stabilizes the aircraft and reduces pilot workload during flights, night-vision goggles, satellite tracking, collision avoidance systems for air traffic and terrain, weather radar, wire strike cutters, and is fully IFR (instrument flight rule) equipped.

The larger patient compartment creates more room for life-saving medical equipment, such as an intra-aortic balloon pump, a special incubator for premature babies, or an extra-corporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) machine that supports patients with severe cardiac and respiratory requirements.

Nurses in the older helicopter occasionally had to “unbelt” to provide urgent care for a patient during flight, said Kelley Holdren, UCAN’s chief flight nurse. “Now they can remain safely buckled in,” she said.

UCAN’s team also worked with its aviation partner Air Methods and Metro Aviation, the company that completed the medical components of the helicopter, to upgrade systems for small but important issues, such as developing methods to keep medicines at optimal temperatures during cold winter flights.

The EC145 does not fly quite as fast as the Dauphin helicopter it replaces. Its standard cruise speed is 153 miles per hour, compared to 160 to 170 miles per hour in the Dauphin.

Air speed should not make a detectable difference, however.

“Our typical flight is about 50 miles one way,” Blumen said. If the helicopter flies 50 miles at 150 miles an hour, that could add a minute or two, “but we get that time back when we move the patient in or out of the helicopter.”

UChicago Medicine started the first hospital-based air-medical transport program in Chicago in 1983. This is its fifth dedicated helicopter.

“We were sad to see our previous aircraft go,” Blumen added. “But everyone is excited about the new aircraft.”

The new helicopter is owned and operated by Air Methods. The aircraft is nearly 43 feet long and more than 11 feet high. It weighs about 2.5 tons.