Monday, May 13, 2013

Benefis Mercy Flight gets faster, safer jet: Holman Aviation at Great Falls International Airport (KGTF), Montana

Written by PETER JOHNSON, Great Falls Tribune 

Benefis Hospitals administrators and Mercy Flight crew members proudly unveiled a new Cessna Citation Mustang medical jet Monday at the Holman Aviation hangar at Great Falls International Airport.

Who wouldn’t be tickled at acquiring a new vehicle that flies faster and higher, with better fuel mileage and enhanced, and safer, navigation features?

Benefis is leasing the new medical jet -- a replacement for an aging twin-engine turboprop King Air B200 – from Oregon-based Aero Air, which also is providing the four pilots to Benefis under a contract.

The gleaming red and white jet was custom-configured for Benefis. After extensive pilot training, a Mercy Flight pilot and medical crew flew it on its first mission on May 1. A pediatric patient was flown to Spokane.

“We wanted a jet that would offer faster transport times for our most critical patients and give our pilots and crew the latest technology for flying over Montana’s rugged terrain,” Benefis Health System CEO John Goodnow said. “The Mustang delivers on both.”

Benefis officials said the Cessna Mustang is the first dedicated medical jet in Montana and can fly 22 percent faster than Mercy’s Flight’s previous plane and burn 30 percent less fuel during long-distance transports, such as critical care flights to Spokane, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Denver.

Pilot Lee McCafferty said most of the plane’s just 60 hours of flying time has been done by his crew during training and early medical missions.

“Flying a new aircraft with brand new technology is going to help us be safer and get our mission done more quickly and efficiently,” he said.

The jet is equipped with “synthetic vision” technology, which offers the pilot one screen showing a 3-D image of the terrain, air traffic and obstacles similar to what a pilot might see on a clear day. That will improve flying conditions at night, or during cloudy, rainy or snowy conditions when flying is permitted but vision is reduced.

“It will help us get around and see what’s going on better in bad weather,” McCafferty said.

The plane’s advanced avionics allow pilots to get information more quickly about weather and flight crews to communicate more quickly about medical conditions, he said. The plane can go higher than its predecessor, up to 41,000 feet, allowing it to get above turbulent winds and crowded urban area flying patterns. That can make flying smoother and the computer also drives the engine at optimal efficiency, he said.

Officials said the jet can fly about 400 mph, or about 100 mph faster than the turboprop. That can save 20 minutes or so on a flight to Spokane and more time on longer flights, they said.

Inside the small jet, chief Mercy Flight nurse Scott Schandleson demonstrated how a patient stretcher is attached to a medical base that contains oxygen, an air compression and power. A special arc fits above the patient’s legs and monitors and IVs are hung from the arc. The medical crew, which usually include a flight nurse and paramedic and sometimes a respiratory therapist, are seated around the patient.

Later this year Benefis will replace Mercy Flight’s single-engine helicopter with the latest twin-engine Eurocopter EC 135 under a contract with Metro Aviation of Shreveport, La.

The Benefis Mercy Flight team flew 927 missions in 2012 and has transported more than 300 patients so far this year. Roughly half are by helicopter and half by plane.

“When every minute counts, the whir of helicopter rotor or the sight of navigation lights in the night sky are a great comfort,” said Benefis Hospitals President Laura Goldhahn. “The new jet will give hundreds of critically ill patients across Montana access to life-saving medical treatment each year, including accident victims, new moms and babies and many others.”

“The ability of this Cessna Mustang medical jet to fly higher and fly safer with more advanced avionics were key points in our decision to bring a medical jet to Montana,” she said.

It even turned out that the new jet can operate less expensively with better fuel mileage than its turbo prop predecessor, she added.

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