Landing a helicopter in a back garden, remote cove, or even the middle of a fancy-dress bike ride, is all in a day’s work for Captain Craig Webster, who has been flying Cornwall Air Ambulance helicopters for five years. The highly-skilled pilot took a break from flying duties to talk about the role he plays in saving lives.
What are some of the more unusual places you’ve landed the air ambulance, to reach a patient as quickly as possible?
I’ve landed in back gardens, remote coves and the top of Brown Willy, but the most bizarre experience was landing on the Camel Trail during a fancy-dress bike ride and being swamped with cyclists wearing brightly coloured skin-tight ‘Morph’ outfits – the little clay character from the TV.
What variables do you have to account for during a mission?
Weather is the biggest factor in Cornwall. Once the patient’s injuries are known we can make a decision on which hospital to take them to. If it looks like a specialist centre further afield is required, such as Bristol or Swansea for example, I will quickly check the weather there and do some calculations on whether we have enough fuel. If not, I’ll make phone calls to arrange refuelling stops to enable us to get back.
What goes through your mind when you’re on the scene of emergency and you know a patient needs to get hospital fast?
I concentrate on doing what I can to speed up the process. Whether it’s fetching kit from the aircraft or lifting a gate from its hinges, I make sure the paramedics and doctors can get the patient in the aircraft as soon as possible. I’ll help carry the stretcher and put kit away and make sure the helicopter is ready to go as soon as they are.
How long have you been flying helicopters?
I started in 1999, flying to offshore oil and gas rigs. Since then I’ve flown for the lighthouse service, windfarm support and for the last five years for Cornwall Air Ambulance. I’ve got in excess of 7,000 flight hours so far.
How does being an air ambulance pilot differ from being a commercial pilot?
An air ambulance pilot has some exemptions from normal rules to enable us to land as close to the patient as possible. Safety is the primary concern though, and any good air ambulance pilot must always balance the risks of the landing area versus the needs of the patient.
Cornwall Air Ambulance can fly in the hours of darkness thanks to night vision technology. How does this differ from daylight flying?
Night flying is a completely different ball game. We can’t just jump in and go like we can in the day. We need to spend a few minutes briefing the mission, mainly to identify the obstacles surrounding the landing area. We use our Trakkabeam search light and our Night Vision Imaging System goggles to find the obstacles when overhead before we can descend and land. It enables us to operate in the dark to any landing site, not just pre-surveyed sites.
Is there such a thing as an average day for a Cornwall Air Ambulance pilot?
The day always starts the same, checking the aircraft and fuel and then putting the coffee on. After that anything can happen. We could find ourselves anywhere in Cornwall, parts of Devon or even on an urgent hospital transfer of a patient to London.
And working for the charity means we get to meet people who have been touched by what we do in some way. We can become wrapped up in our day-to-day routine and it’s nice to be reminded how worthwhile the work really is.
Is there any advice you can give to aspiring Cornwall Air Ambulance pilots?
Helicopters are certainly a curiosity to children and I remember being fascinated when I was a child. It’s important to tell them it’s not that difficult and if they work hard at school, then they could do it too!
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