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Offshore EMS - When Life Matters

Posted 12 years 223 days ago ago by Admin

By Caterina Hessler, Philipp Jahnke - Due to environmental pollution and the dawning end of mineral oil as one of the main energy resources, clean ways to generate renewable energy gain more and more importance. One of the most important renewable energy sources is wind. Therefore giant wind farms are planned to be built in the Northern and Baltic Sea – but as the number and the size of those parks grow, newoffshore ems problems concerning the care for injured or ill workers arise.


It’s my first visit to Emden, a small city at Germany’s Northern seashore. The little airfield of the town is becoming more and more relevant for the offshore industry. It has been the hub of the airline OLT, which supplies the islands of East Frisia with food, goods and post, for years. But in the last years helicopter companies also settled here and are growing fast. One of those is Northern Helicopters, a company that is specialized in Offshore-EMS flights.


It is about ten o’clock when the telephone rings. Pilot Wolfgang Meinhard, called “Wolle,” informs the rest of the crew, “We have an alert, time to go flying.” The crews have to get airborne within twenty minutes after the alarm. This is just enough time to pull out the helicopter from the hangar, gather weather information, call the second paramedic (one is always at the base while the second one is in service and can be alerted any time), and climb into the helicopter.

While I’m putting on my flight suite, the crew is already checking the helicopter, a white AS365 Dauphin with landing gear and pop-out floats. It’s the only helicopter of this type that operates in EMS missions in Germany. In order to get an authentic impression of the flight, I am allowed to sit in the co-pilot’s seat. While pilot “Wolle” starts up the two engines of the Dauphin, paramedic Herbert Janssen is monitoring the start-up procedure from outside of the cabin (if an engine catches fire, he’s the first one to discover it and to inform the pilot). After two minutes the engines and the oil have the right temperature and we are ready for take off.

Our destination is the island of Baltrum in the northern sea – it is only a few miles away from the shoreline but the ferry makes the passage only once every hour. An aircraft is the fastest way to get there. During the flight we get some information about our mission: A 13-year-old girl was riding her bicycle with high speed when she lost control and fell. She is complaining about heavy pain in her shoulder. The island’s physician suspects she may have broken her collarbone and recommends an x-ray in a hospital onshore.

After landing on Baltrum the crew helps the young patient into the helicopter. The girl is able to walk and is excited about her first ride in such an aircraft. We take off again and reach the hospital of Emden after a short flight. While the medical crew is delivering the girl to the doctors in the emergency department, I am able to talk to the pilot. “Wolle” tells me about the doctors on the islands.

“Most of them do not have sophisticated medical equipment and some of them are a little bit old fashioned in their methods – the only way to tread patients according to the gold standard is to get them to the onshore clinic ASAP,” he said. Since the transport of a patient to an onshore hospital by ferry would be too long and strenuous, the helicopter is alerted even in case of a lighter injury. A transport helicopter picks up patients in critical conditions from Sanderbusch (a city near Emden) with intensive care equipment, call sign Christoph 26.

offshore emsAfter landing at Emden airfield, Herbert Janssen explains their work to me. “What you saw right now is called a primary assignment, a flight where the doctor is inward and is requesting the helicopter. Our application areas for these flights are the islands of East Frisia (Baltrum, Juist, Langeook, Spiekerook, Wangerooke, Borkum and Norderney). Our crews on those rescue flights are made up of one pilot, the medical crew (one paramedic and one aid man) and the winch operator,” Janssen says.

“However, in the last months there have been more and more genuine offshore missions, to rescue workers of offshore rigs. There are two gigantic wind farm projects in the Northern Sea, the Alpha Ventus wind farm and the one of BARD. To give an impression of the dimensions: BARD Offshore 1 is spread over an area of 60 Square kilometers and there are 80 wind turbines planned to be built there. So far, 19 have been built and 16 of those are on the net, as yet. Alpha Ventus was the first German Offshore wind farm and is running 12 giant wind turbines, right now,” comments Janssen.

“With the building progress of the wind farms we got us a new problem: as safe as they are, there will always be accidents and injured or ill workers to be treated. Some patients might suffer from some minor sickness; some might be injured really badly. But there was no plan to get them evacuated and transferred to the hospital,” explains Janssen.

“The first gondolas didn’t even have protecting grates on their top and were equipped with only a very small door on the top. Imagine: a person is injured inside the wind turbine. We would have to fly there and hover over the turbine while one of us is being winched down to the gondola without any means of protection, once he is on top of the structure. It’s always windy there at sea and sometimes even stormy. Rain and snow are common, too. Now you are supposed to climb through the door, in order to get to the patient and to stabilize him or her and then lift him through this little hatch – impossible!” Janssen proclaims.

“So far, there have been four accidents and it always took a long time to recover the patients. The rescue chain was suboptimal. But the operators and manufacturers of the wind turbines are very cooperative. We all sat together and devised a plan for a fast and save rescue mission. As you see, there has been no comparable scenario, yet – this is truly sort of pioneer work – and we are the only HEMS operator in Germany who does it!” Janssen comments.

For those offshore missions (in the 12 nautical miles zone) the helicopter must be flown in dual mode, whichoffshore ems means that a pilot, co-pilot, winch operator and the two medical crewmembers (in this case often an emergency doctor, too) are onboard. Instead of the transfer flights that are only flown in the time from sunrise to sunset (plus 30 minutes) the offshore missions are flown 24/7. The Dauphin is always equipped with all medical devices that are necessary for an ambulance flight: stretcher, intravenous lines, intravenous pump, a respirator, the necessary equipment for airway management and patient monitoring systems including an ECG.

In comparison to the ambulance flights to the islands, patients at the wind farms are often in far worse conditions and this equipment might be needed more often. Of course there are emergency rooms on the living platforms at each farm and those are well-equipped, also with good doctors – but if someone is injured in a gondola or in the mast of the wind turbine, he has to be rescued from there first. Therefore the hoist is essential.

“Most of our crew members came from the Army; especially our pilots and winch operators. They have thousands of hours of training and they are very experienced. We joke around a lot while waiting for the next alert, but during operations the guys on the winch are absolute pros and do a great job,” Herbert Janssen explains.

As mentioned before, there are only few experiences of working at wind turbines with a helicopter. But there are also some identical energy plants onshore to get the necessary training. Of course each case of an accident and each alert is special. You can get routine but you can’t automate the rescue chain, especially not in the offshore theatre.

“Wind energy plants rescue missions are very challenging. Our emergency backpack has a weight of 16.5 kilograms, we have to carry it while climbing to the patient in order to secure him and to get him down on the platform or up to the gondola and from there into the helicopter. Only the energy plants that are working have an electrical feed and an elevator. The others that are built right now have an upright ladder, only – and they are about 60 meters high. Sometimes it is very difficult to get a person in safely,” elaborates Herbert Janssen.

“People who work on an oil rig or a wind turbine know their risk. It’s the same with mountain climbers. In some case you will be injured so badly that you won’t survive because the rescue is so difficult or will take too long. offshore emsIt’s hard to take, but that’s reality. But we do our best to save as many lives as we can,” Janssen comments.

Northern Helicopter has about eleven permanent employees on its payroll and about 20 freelancers. Every one of them who wants to fly offshore has to complete a sea survival training that is repeated every three years. The company owns three helicopters: the AS365 Dauphin for rescue flights, an EC 155 for offshore transportation and a Bell 206 Long Ranger for film and photo flights, education and passenger flights. As CEO Frank Zabell explains, the AS365 will be replaced in the near future, by an AS365 of the more powerful N-series. The crews have mixed feelings about this. “The old Dauphin has the same performance as the Huey most of us flew in Fassberg*, but it’s lighter and therefore has more power. We like this helicopter,” as Pilot “Wolle” tells me.

Since the company was founded in 2008, the rescue missions gain more and more importance, climbing from 346 alerts in the first year to more than 500 forecast for 2011.

As the wind farms are growing, the telephone will ring much more often in Emden. And the crews of Northern Helicopter will do their best to save lives at the Frisian Islands and making the offshore Projects in the Northern Sea safer again.

*A base of the German Army that is still equipped with Bell UH-1D Huey.