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Icy Blades Pose Big Challenges to Aero Med During Winter Months

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GRAND RAPIDS, Mich.- It’s a scaled down version of the Black Hawk, a flying ambulance that lands where patients are most in need.

Director of Aero Med Flight Operations for Spectrum Health Bradford Stretton says the calls for their assistance don’t slow down in this weather, but their ability to respond does.

The Aero Med team is made up of a pilot, emergency room physician and in-flight nurse who is also a paramedic.

The Aero Med helicopter sits in a hangar at Gerald R. Ford International Airport when the weather keeps it grounded.  That’s why the pilots begin each day assessing the weather.

When an emergency call comes in, the pilot must decide if the flight is possible before learning patient information.

“Because we don`t want the pilot to make their decision based on it being a 2-year-old kid,” Stretton said.

He says it’s a very difficult decision but it must be based on the weather.  Once a pilot accepts the flight, they discuss the patient.

Cold temperatures and low clouds keep the helicopter grounded, creating ice on the blades.

Stretton says ice can accumulate on the blades up to two inches thick in less than 30 seconds.

Icing grounds 200 flights a year.  Another 300 flights are grounded due to other weather conditions yet 750 flights are still completed each year.

Pilots go through rigorous training preparing them for any scenario like landing on the highway in these snowy conditions.

“Most the time when that happens they’ll land us right on the freeway, they`ll just close down the freeway,” Stretton said.

Though the brutal weather conditions continue, Aero Med will be staffed 24 hours a day in case they are able to take flight or if they’re needed on the ground.

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