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Atrium Health MedCenter Air: Community Service Rises to New Heights

Posted 278 days ago ago by Admin


With a population over one million people, Charlotte, North Carolina, the seat of Mecklenburg County,  is the largest city in the state, and 15th largest in the U.S.

Formed in 1762, Mecklenburg County, which lies at the intersection of several major U.S. highways, has become a business hub for many industries such as banking, manufacturing, and high-tech medicine. Additionally, given its many universities and outdoor attractions, the region also draws sports fans, academics, as well as adventure enthusiasts.

Atrium Health, formerly Carolinas HealthCare System, is a hospital network with more than 70,000 employees and part of Advocate Health. It operates 40 hospitals, seven freestanding emergency departments, over 30 urgent care centers, and more than 1,400 care locations in the states of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama.

Inside the expansive Atrium Health system is the capable and efficient aviation department MedCenter Air. One needs to not look further than the organization’s website to know what their concise goal is: “When minutes can mean the difference between life and death, look to Atrium Health’s MedCenter Air for fast, reliable, emergency and critical care patient transport services.” How do they provide this “fast and reliable” service? Answer: With a fleet of modern helicopters and jets and teams of highly trained personnel.

MedCenter Air has been serving its communities for nearly 40 years (since May 1986). A NASCAR driver was the first patient flown as a result of a crash during a race in Charlotte. The program humbly began with nothing more than a single Bell 206 LongRanger, but has evolved into a fleet of six twin-engine, IFR capable, Airbus EC135 / H135P2+ helicopters. Additionally, the program operates one Cessna Citation fixed-wing and three Pilatus PC-24 jets both nationally and internationally. The fixed-wing aircraft are operated by GAMA Aviation, LLC; the rotor-wing aircraft are operated by Air Methods Corporation. The program itself is fully accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS).

The two new H135P2+s powered by twin 667 shaft-horse-power Pratt & Whitney PW206B2 engines and the Airbus Helionix avionics package are the latest edition to the MedCenter Air helicopter fleet. Backed by experience and a long heritage, over 1,400 twin-engine H135s have been delivered and are in service in more than 65 countries. With over 316 operators, the H135 fleet has flown 6.6 million hours (as of 2022). With more than 600 H135s flying in the air ambulance sector, the aircraft is very popular for its compact footprint, rear loading clamshell doors, and enclosed fenestron.

Geographically, MedCenter Air operates four helicopter bases that serve North and South Carolina. Strategically located in Concord, Hickory, Wadesboro and Rock Hill, the bases are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. In addition to the aircraft, Atrium Health operates 25 ground transport ambulances in the Charlotte region.

Each helicopter base is staffed by four pilots, two full-time mechanics, and the medical crews are made up of respiratory therapists, flight nurses and flight medics. The helicopters respond to two primary types of calls. Interfacility transports, which make up 70% of flights, are hospital-to-hospital transfers that can range from NICU patients to cardiac balloon patients and everything in between. Scene calls, which comprise 30% of flights, can be responses to car accidents and traumatic injuries.

Onboard advanced medical equipment includes cardiac monitors, ventilators, IV infusion pumps, advanced drug supply and an intra-aortic balloon pump. Additionally, each aircraft carries two units of whole blood as well as two units of plasma. Basically, almost any procedure that can be accomplished in an emergency room can be done in the back of the helicopter. “Our goal is to bring hospital-level care to the patient at the bedside or wherever they are,” said Nate McCoy, a flight nurse and base outreach liaison for MedCenter Air. The helicopter side of the operations are averaging 200 flights per month.

MedCenter Air helicopter pilots are provided to the program by the Air Methods Corporation, which is one of the largest Part 135 helicopter operators in the world, and employed by Atrium Health. All pilots are required to have a minimum of 2,000 hours of flying experience and are trained to be current in both IFR and night NVG flying conditions.

From a maintenance perspective, Air Methods mechanics are tasked with keeping MedCenter Air’s fleet of helicopters up and running. There are generally four in-service helicopters and two backup aircraft that may either be on standby or in some state of maintenance. This arrangement provides a high level of aircraft availability to the region. Although each base is assigned two mechanics, the hangar at Charlotte Douglas International Airport, which is also the aviation department’s headquarters, is used as the “heavy maintenance” facility where scheduled maintenance inspections and unscheduled repairs are performed. “Although our Airbus H135s are very reliable, we really appreciate our maintenance personnel as they keep us flying and safe,” said flight nurse Steve Baxter.

The success of Atrium Health MedCenter Air hinges on not only its pilots, med crews, and maintenance personnel, but also on partnerships both within, and outside the community it serves. For Part 135 aircraft operations, MedCenter Air relies on two different companies to keep their aircraft flying and ready to serve their communities. The Air Methods Corporation, headquartered in Denver, Colorado, keeps the helicopters up and running by providing trained air ambulance pilots, and top-notch maintenance personnel.

Nate McCoy also points out that it’s important to be in touch with local communities directly. “MedCenter Air has a wonderful working relationship with the communities that we serve. These relationships extend to the local fire departments as well as the general community. We give back by providing assistance with public relations events such as ‘National Night Out.’ We also go out and train with our local fire departments for continuous medical education as well as landing-zone training,” said McCoy.

Utilizing a fleet of Pilatus and Cessna jets, MedCenter Air has also built up a robust fixed-wing service which can extend Atrium Health's reach beyond what the helicopters would normally be used for. The organization offers regional, national and international transport capabilities utilizing the airplanes. All fixed-winged aircraft are staffed with two pilots.

The fixed-wing air ambulance capabilities allow for individualized adult, hybrid and neopeds patient care. MedCenter Air medical crew can care for up to three patients or isolette loads in addition to specialized transports such as IABP, ECMO, Impella® and VADS. Currently the airplanes are performing an average of 80 flights per month. 40% of the flights are related to organ transplants and are completed within 500 nautical miles of the medical center, while the remaining 60% are patient flights, which can be national and international.

In fact, MedCenter Air’s fixed-wing air ambulance teams have seen a rapid increase in medical repatriation flights in which U.S. citizens are traveling abroad and fall ill or become injured and need to be flown back to the U.S. MedCenter Air has been performing these flights to an increasing number of international locations to include Central and South America, the Caribbean, Europe, India and China. According to MedCenter Air, the demand for medical repatriation flights have increased from 10 in 2022, to nearly one per week in 2023.

The glue that keeps the operation together and serving the communities is Atrium Health’s MedCenter Air FlightWatch Communications Center. Fully staffed by a highly trained group of communications specialists, the center arranges all patient transportation within the Atrium Health system. Whether a patient needs ground ambulance, helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft transportation, their communications specialists are available 24/7, processing nearly 65,000 patient transport requests per year. As an added level of safety and accountability, all aircraft are tracked during each phase of a medical flight from takeoff to touchdown.

It’s not a stretch to imagine that the care that a NASCAR race driver received back in 1986 looks drastically different than it does in 2023. Over the decades, as technology has advanced in both aircraft design and in medical treatments, Atrium Health’s MedCenter Air seems committed to remaining in the front of the pack when it comes to providing a high level of air ambulance care and the big race winners are all the citizens it serves.


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