AMS Departs Eastern Cape

The SA Red Cross Air Mercy Service Trust (AMS) has been given notice by the Eastern Cape Department of Health Emergency Medical Service to cease its helicopter operations at the end of July 2021 in the Province.  In December 2020, the AMS was granted an interim three-month Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) contract by the Eastern Cape Provincial Department of Health. The interim contract was extended by another three months and thereafter an extension was granted on a month to month basis. The AMS was operational from bases in East London, Gqeberha and Mthatha.  

“During our tenure in the Eastern Cape the AMS was able to contribute its more than 5 decade aero-medical experience to provide access to healthcare to the community of the Eastern Cape. It was our privilege to provide a quality aero-medical service to strengthen our national health system to ensure that healthcare reaches all communities in the deepest rural areas of our country” said Dr. Philip Erasmus, AMS CEO.

The AMS fleet of aircraft that was operational within the Province was the AgustaWestland 119Ke & Kx single engine aircraft. The helicopters are fully equipped with a dedicated specialised medical intensive care interior, with the capacity for two pilots, three crew members and one stretcher patient including mother and baby transport.  Although the service provided to the Province was only a daylight service (as was required by the Province), the AMS has the capability to offer a 24hour helicopter service by using Night Vision Systems (NVG’s). This facilitates access to rural hospitals and clinics that are unable to be reached at night by helicopter.

Franco Ponticelli, helicopter pilot based at the AMS Mthatha base has been working with the organisation since the start of interim contract. He has worked in the aviation, tourism and surveillance operations industries. “I never truly felt like a pilot, until I started flying for the emergency services.  Flying a helicopter for emergency services feels like fulfilling the purpose that helicopters were designed for” Ponticelli said.  Ponticelli went on to share his experience flying for the AMS “challenging, amazing flying while being at the service of people who need it most. During my time flying for AMS in the Eastern Cape I can truly say that the AMS has touched the lives of so many, not only the lives saved but every family member that now has more time with their loved ones.”

As part of the AMS’ value added service, we were able to contribute towards building capacity within the Province by providing training with its cutting edge mobile teaching centre and its specialised external load operator (ELO) training programme. The AMS established a training unit for the purpose of facilitation of learning and skills development.

Approximately 100 provincial emergency medical services crew members were exposed to CAT 138 training. CAT 138 training refers to the technical standard of operation that all air ambulance operators need to conform to as set out by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA) in order to provide safe and efficient aero-medical services. This training is required before commencing work on a HEMS  aircraft, the training entails the operation of the aircraft, the medical interior, the loading & unloading of patients and equipment as well as medical principles and industry best practice with a major emphasis on safety.

The AMS has been providing air-sea and mountain rescue services by helicopter for almost two decades. Its stringent training programmes for ELO’s are focused around safety and efficiency and have been developed taking the international and local (military) best practices into account.  External load operators utilise their specilised skils on the helicopter platform and require special training in order to insert rescuers to extricate patients in life threatening emergencies that are limited by confined spaces, rough terrains and surf swells etc. Erasmus added that “due to the short term nature of the contract we were able to introduce phase one of the ELO programme, where the local provincial paramedics were trained on the theoretical and practical components of the external load operator rescue programme. The intention was to conduct full hoist training with the end result of having fully trained individuals to become signed out external load operators in order to introduce a full professional civilian rescue service in the Province.”

Andrew de Bruyn, helicopter pilot based in East London with more than 20 years flying experience has the following to say; “I have enjoyed my time and the professionalism experienced working with the AMS.  It would be great to remain with the organisation for the foreseeable future, I am sad that the contract has come to an end. We have done good work during our time here, I hope AMS is able to come back one day.”

The AMS is grateful to have had the opportunity to work alongside the Eastern Cape Department of Health to ensure the continuation of aero-medical services to the community. “We hope that someday we are able to return and introduce a bouquet of comprehensive aero-medical services which includes outreach services to bring healthcare to the marganilised communities,” Erasmus concluded.

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