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STAR Flight Unveils New Helicopters

Posted 3 years 178 days ago ago by Admin

STAR (Shock Trauma Air Rescue) Flight  is the Air Operations Division of Travis County, Texas. It is a public safety air rescue program that is unique because it performs critical transport, firefighting, rescue, and limited law enforcement support.  STAR Flight is based in Austin and serves not only the citizens of Travis County, but also 19 other counties within a 75-mile radius. Many of its calls are to assist those who are experiencing medical problems or suffering from traumatic injuries from motor vehicle crashes or other activities. When requested, STAR Flight regularly transports very sick patients in rural hospitals to larger, better-equipped hospitals.

The history of STAR Flight has an interesting progression. In 1985, STAR Flight initiated operations with a contract-leased Bell 206B, which was eventually replaced with a larger, more powerful Bell 206 L3. This aircraft could transport one patient and was staffed by two medical personnel. In 1990, a Bell 412 SP was added to the fleet. This much larger, more powerful aircraft greatly enhanced the public safety mission by adding multiple-patient transport, rescue, and short-haul capabilities. Firefighting was done with a suspended Bambi Bucket. The 412-SP was the primary, frontline aircraft for eight years, with the 206 serving as a backup. In 1998, two Eurocopter EC135s were acquired and in early 2006, STAR Flight introduced two EC145 multi-role aircraft. A third EC145 was added four years later. In 2013, a UH-1H Huey was acquired for the sole purpose of fire support duties. 

So since 2006, STAR Flight has been operating three EC145 multi-role helicopters, and in 2013 purchased a UH-1H+ Huey for wildfire suppression. These aircraft have served the citizens of Central Texas flawlessly and now are being replaced by the new, more powerful Leonardo Helicopters AW169. STAR Flight has the distinction of being the first United States EMS operator to use this aircraft.

Leonardo AW 169

Designed in accordance to the FAA/EASA Part 29 standards, the AW169 has a crash resistant airframe, fuel tanks, and crew seats, and one-engine-inoperative capability, even during high and hot conditions. Safety on the ground is enhanced by the high main and tail rotor blades.

It is a medium-sized, twin-engine helicopter powered by a pair of Pratt & Whitney Canada PW210A turboshaft engines. The AW169 is equipped with various avionics systems and a glass cockpit. It also has three displays outfitted with touch-screen interfaces,digital maps, dual radar altimeters, a health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS), and night vision goggle (NVG) compatibility. The use of a four-axis digital automatic flight control system and a dual flight management system incorporating terrain and traffic avoidance systems has allowed for the rotorcraft to be certified to be flown by a single pilot under instrument flight rules (IFR).

It has the largest cabin in its class, features accommodation for two stretchers, either longitudinally or transversely, and space for a full suite of the most advanced life-support equipment. Wide sliding doors allow easy loading/unloading of the patient; the spacious cabin ensures entire access to the patient. In addition to the cabin, a large baggage compartment is available to store additional stretchers and loose equipment. The aircraft also has an auxiliary power mode, which allows the operation of environmental control systems, radios, and medical devices while the rotors are stopped.

All this new technology is not cheap; the three new helicopters will cost the county $33 million. The broker that is selling the aircraft was able to put together a deal that will net the county $14.1 million with the sale of the existing four aircraft and allow them to continue to use them until all three of the AW169s arrive.   

STAR Flight partners with pediatric and neonatal specialty transport teams from Austin area hospitals. They can transport pediatric and neonatal specialty team members to outlying hospitals in the Central Texas region to assist in the care and transport of sick or premature babies and children. The specialty transport teams are not employed by STAR Flight; they are employees of their respective hospitals. These crews have flight uniforms that they change into when they are called upon to do a transport. Once the patient has been stabilized, he or she, along with the neonatal or pediatric transport team members, are flown directly back to the hospital where specialized care can be continued. In this way, specialized neonatal or pediatric ICU-level care can begin upon arrival at the outlying facility and continued all the way to the hospital NICU/PICU. The larger cabin of the AW169 allows extra space for a parent or family member to travel with the child.

Victim Extraction 

STAR Flight rescue personnel are trained to operate safely when extricating patients from high-hazard environments, including cliffs, swift water, and confined areas. When performing a water rescue, crew members dress out in water rescue gear. While, the crew gathers more information from dispatch or from on-scene crews so that they can plan accordingly. Upon locating the victim at the scene, the rescuer is lowered into the water to gain access to the victim.
For a victim in lake water, a rescuer may be deployed directly into the water to locate, assess, and begin medical care of the victim.  If the victim is located in swift water, crews may take a slightly different approach. Due to the extreme danger swift water poses, the rescuer can be moved to the victim’s location using the hoist or a “short haul” technique.  The victim is secured and moved (with a rescuer still attached) to a safe location where medical care can be initiated. These rescues are typically done during flash flood events. 

One main selling point of the AW169 is the available power and one-engine capability during hoist operations. Safety Officer Joe Lebraque said, “With this aircraft, if we are hoisting a victim and lose an engine, we still have the ability to continue the hoist rescue.  In the older aircraft it would have been very difficult to complete the rescue.”

Central Texas is home to very diverse and beautiful outdoor recreation areas. Some are remote and rugged, such as Enchanted Rock State Park. Even Austin has rugged wilderness areas within its city limits that are popular places for hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking.  Several individuals each year become lost or injured within these areas and need rapid extraction and medical treatment.


When STAR Flight is called on by local fire departments to assist firefighters on the ground with wildfires, they are able to help by providing direct aerial fire suppression, and/or serving as an air attack coordinator that assists ground firefighters by providing information about the fire such as direction of travel, hot spots, threatened structures, and areas that firefighters may need to address immediately. Direct aerial suppression is the most common service provided. All three aircraft are able to use a Bambi Bucket to drop water. Underbelly tanks are currently being worked on for these aircraft.  When needed, the crew will be able to install the tanks in about a half hour. During fire season, one aircraft will always have the tank installed to facilitate an immediate response to any fire calls.
STAR Flight is dispatched through the same 911 systems as fire and ambulance services. The program is utilized within the county as a first response Advance Life Support (ALS) ambulance. This means that many times a STAR Flight aircraft may arrive on scene in rural areas before the ground ambulance does. Any high-priority medical request call that will take ground units more than 20 minutes arrival time triggers automatic dispatch of aircraft to the scene. This is the main reason why STAR Flight is unique from other EMS air operations.  Most air programs are not requested until an emergency unit arrives at the scene and determines that a helicopter is needed.

Funding for the STAR Flight program comes from county taxpayers, as it is a public safety agency. STAR Flight operates under Part 135 rules that allow it to generate some revenue to offset tax dollars. Currently it cost each taxpayer just under $2 per person, per year, to fund the program. This is much different from the financial models of other EMS programs that operate under a per-patient basis. STAR Flight has separate fees that are charged to the patient or their insurance in the event of a transport. For example, if STAR Flight rescues someone from a flood situation and drops them off with family, law enforcement or EMS at the scene and not to a hospital, then that person is not billed. If the patient is injured, STAR Flight will rescue that person and transport them to a hospital. The patient is not billed for the rescue but is billed for the transport to the hospital.

With 34 years of flight operations behind it, STAR Flight and its new AW169s will certainly continue being an indispensable asset to Travis County and the Central Texas area for years to come.