The King Air is Essential for Flying Doctor Service’s
The New Zealand Flying Doctor Service (NZFDS) is the fixed wing division of GCH Aviation that provides inter-hospital transfers of patients nationwide for two districts located in New Zealand’s South Island. The nation’s health care system is centralized due to the country’s size in comparison to its population. Similar to the role played by the Royal Flying Doctors, located in nearby Australia, the NZFDS aids in the transportation of critically ill patients from smaller outlying hospitals and medical centers to more established hospitals and medical specialists in New Zealand’s larger cities.
In 2009, the Flying Doctor Service added their first King Air, a Super King Air 200C (ZK-FDR), based in Christchurch, as their service area grew and led to more challenging flight conditions. Three years later they purchased a King Air C90B, currently based in Nelson. As their operations continue to grow, they plan to increase their King Air fleet.
Saving Lives from the Start
NZFDS was established in 1995 and the first mission would drastically demonstrate its need. A tragedy, known as the Cave Creek Disaster, occurred in Paparoa National Park on the West Coast of South Island. A viewing platform high above Cave Creek collapsed and fell almost 100 feet (30 meters) killing 13 students and a Department of Conservation worker, and critically injuring four more. NZFDS transferred medical teams from Christchurch to Grey Base Hospital in Greymouth, located near the scene of the accident, and the only facility on the West Coast that offered the specialized services needed in this situation. Once the immediate needs of the survivors were attended to, NZFDS transferred the patients to Christchurch for further treatment and provided ongoing critical care inflight.
The disaster reinforced the need for a flying doctor service that could travel to the most remote regions in New Zealand and administer time-critical care enroute to a more specialized treatment facility. John Currie, who was already operating Garden City Helicopters in an emergency rescue capacity, had the foresight to start the Flying Doctor Service. “Although we were operating the rescue helicopter in the South Island at the time [of the Cave Creek Disaster], it was evident that there were times when you needed more than a rescue team and a helicopter,” he said.
He saw that those who were very sick and required a specialist’s care needed to be transferred to a hospital that could provide advanced medical treatment. Sometimes the distances were substantial, and at other times the need for a pressurized airplane was required to fly over the Southern Alps. The pressurized aircraft was also needed to keep the patient at sea level cabin pressure, which is critical for very sick patients. “Most of all, [the patients] need to have intensive care right through the journey from one hospital bed to another until specialized treatment is available at the destination,” Currie explained.
When NZFDS began, it was staffed by paramedics, but soon after a specialist and nurses were employed so patients would receive the same level of care throughout their transport. Today, the medical flight service operates 24/7/365 out of its two bases covering the greater part of South Island and the Chatham Islands. It employs a full-time team of 12 pilots, 25 intensive care flight nurses who are supported by intensive care doctors and senior medical officers, and a small, dedicated neonatal and midwife team. The flight service transports an average of 1,500 patients annually.
Perfect Aircraft for Critical Missions
New Zealand’s South Island consists of about 58,000 square miles and a population of approximately 1.1 million people, making it the 12th largest island in the world by area. The island is classified by the New Zealand Civil Aviation Authority as 80 percent “mountainous terrain.” Several of the mountain ranges have peaks of over 5,000 feet and the Southern Alps and Mt Cook reach up to 12,300 feet.
In 2009 when the NZFDS was operating a Cessna Conquest and a Cessna 421 Golden Eagle, an increase in patient numbers and expanding service area pushed the decision to acquire a King Air to allow for a second stretcher and meet their flight condition needs. The company was fortunate to purchase the Super King Air 200C from the Royal Flying Doctors of Australia, as it already had a large cargo door and the medical stretcher system installed. The Conquest now serves as a backup to the 200C and the Cessna 421 was relocated to Nelson and was eventually replaced with a King Air C90B in 2012. The operation in Nelson doesn’t work at an intensive care level and mostly transfers patients who can walk up and down the stairs of the aircraft. The C90B does have the ability to load and unload patients on a stretcher via the standard door, if needed.
According to Arthur Ruddenklau, NZFDS’s operations manager, a typical mission is a flight from Christchurch to Greymouth to transfer an intensive care patient to a more specialized hospital in Christchurch. Greymouth, on the West Coast of South Island, is a thin stretch of flat land sandwiched between the South Alps and the Tasman Sea. “The prevailing weather patterns are westerly in nature which makes the West Coast very wet. The average rainfall ranges from 200 centimeters (78 inches) on the coastal area and 1,000 centimeters (394 inches) on the western side of the Southern Alps which presents a number of challenges for the pilots,” Ruddenklau said.
NZFDS also conducts medical flights to and from the Chatham Islands – a group of 10 islands in the Pacific Ocean about 500 nautical miles east/northeast of Christchurch. “The weather on the Islands can also pose a challenge with a constant ‘breeze’ averaging 16 knots, and for at least 120 days of the year, it can gust to more than 35 knots. There are also a number of days that the islands are affected by low clouds, drizzle, mist and fog which adds to the flight challenges,” Ruddenklau explained. “The Super King Air 200C is well suited for these flights as it can carry a standard medical team of a nurse and doctor, two pilots and enough fuel to reach the island and divert back to the mainland if required.”
The King Air has proven to be the right aircraft for the NZFDS and they are currently searching for a later model B200C to join their fleet as their growth continues every year. Later, the Flying Doctor Service plans to look for another model B200, B200C or B350 to replace the Conquest and start charter flights through their new FBO facility in Christchurch. It would also serve as a backup for medical flights during scheduled and unscheduled maintenance.
Ruddenklau concluded by saying, “The reliability of the King Air is remarkable as is the parts support and technical advice. The aircraft offers a huge level of safety, comfort and is an extremely stable platform to operate both from a pilot and clinical point of view.”
The GCH Evolution
The GCH Aviation Group is an umbrella brand representing parent company Garden City Helicopters, based in Christchurch, New Zealand, and many associated aviation operations extending throughout New Zealand and into the South Pacific. The collective group offers certified flight training, tourism and charter flights, commercial services, air rescue and ambulance operations through its fleet of helicopters and fixed-wing aircraft.
Parent company Garden City Helicopters was established in 1983 as a coastal helicopter rescue service and a scenic flight tourist operator. As those areas grew, and there was a need in other areas of aviation, Garden City Helicopters started expanding by adding other aviation service groups including the New Zealand Flying Doctor Service.
Garden City Helicopters is widely respected as a premier helicopter operator in New Zealand, so it only made sense to introduce a brand name for all of the separate entities to operate under. GCH Aviation was introduced in order to present a professional, cohesive and quality-focused service to its customers with the following mission statement:
GCH Aviation Group aims to provide a professional service tailored to meet the wants and needs of our individual clients.
Operating with very experienced pilots we wish to maintain our excellent flight safety record and pass on our high standards to trainee pilots who graduate from our program.
We wish to remain progressive and innovative to keep pace with a changing external environment and introduce diversification within the realms of our core operations.
Our organisation is a high-profile company and we wish to maintain our image and credibility built up over the last 30 years.
Ruddenklau concluded by saying, “Safety is the paramount consideration for all of GCH Aviation’s operations. The vast experience of the pilots, regular training, familiarity of equipment and extensive and continual exposure to the extreme terrain covered by our network, ensures that our safety record is maintained.”