Residents in Hampton Roads can look up to the sky now even on a foggy day and see the Nightingale Regional Air Ambulance soaring through the clouds.
In December, Sentara announced that the famous emergency rescue helicopter would be updated with new technology that would allow it to fly during conditions such as rain or fog, said Dale Gauding, spokesman for Sentara Healthcare.
Prior, the Nightingale operated under Visual Flight Rules, which meant that it could only fly when there was total visibility in the sky. This meant the aircraft would be unable to fly to a location in need of help if the conditions didn’t allow for pilots to see the ground.
Now, the helicopter will operate under Instrument Flight Rules which means it can fly in a variety of bad weather.
“IFR flights create designated airspace,” Gauding said. “It’s like you’re flying in the clouds in a space that is reserved for that path.”
The Nightingale already does about 700 trips each year over a 125-mile radius. From the Outer Banks in North Carolina to Norfolk, the helicopter takes high-distress patients to Level 1 trauma centers in the area. This means the aircraft is taking patients who are either seriously ill or critically injured. There are only five Level 1 trauma centers in Virginia and Sentara Norfolk General Hospital is one of them.
But with the new technology, Gauding said the Nightingale will be able to make even more trips.
“At 130 knots, you’re going to get somewhere much faster than a ground vehicle,” he said. “Now we will be able to help more people and probably utilize less resources.”
Another benefit of IFR is that the helicopter will no longer require as many scene flights.
A scene flight involves a local fire department in the area of the Nightingale’s location. The fire department has to prepare a landing site for them, making sure there are no obstructions or issues with the area.
But now the Nightingale can land at nine designated IFR landing sites throughout the region:
- Sentara Norfolk General Hospital (Nightingale’s base)
- Sentara Obici Hospital (Suffolk)
- Sentara Williamsburg Regional Medical Center
- Isle of Wight County Rescue Squad (Smithfield)
- Campbell Field (Northampton County, Eastern Shore)
- Sentara Albemarle Medicine Center (Elizabeth City, North Carolina)
- Outer Banks Hospital (Nags Head, North Carolina)
- Corolla Fire Station (Corolla, North Carolina)
- Carova Beach Volunteer Fire & Rescue Station (Carova, North Carolina)
IFR landing sites are already cleared and ready for landing and the helicopter is pre-programmed to know where it is landing.
But Gauding said there may still be some circumstances where a scene flight is necessary.
“IFR means you don’t have to see the ground below you to land, it’s already programmed,” he said. “But they aren’t going to land in the middle of a farm field without visual.”
The Nightingale is run as part of Sentara’s not-for-profit mission, meaning all of the costs for the helicopter transportation are not billed to the patient. As a unique type of emergency service transportation, the Nightingale is often engaging with patients in some of the most critical emergency situations.
“We don’t want to shock people with a bill after they’ve had a life-changing experience,” Gauding said. “If you are injured enough for a flight you have bigger issues than a bill. And now we will be able to have access to help even more people.”
Editor’s Note: Nightingale patients’ are billed for emergency flights. The bill will go to the patients’ insurance company but if the insurance company does not reimburse the total amount, the hospital does not require patients to pay the difference. Patients without insurance can be significantly discounted or have bills written off. In addition, IFR means that pilots can fly to the landing site on instruments but still need to see the ground in order to land.