July 25, 2023 | Aviation, Medicine, Operations, Our Team

Patient care coming in hot

Three uniformed STARS crew members walk away from a running helicopter through tall grass toward unidentified people bending over in foreground.

What if your office is a cramped space in the sky without air conditioning or windows that roll down to let the breeze flow? We asked our crew members what it’s like to fly in the summer heat with PPE and how they work within these warm conditions.

While the health of our critically sick and injured patients is our first priority, there are a number of matters our crews in the sky need to think about on those hot summer days and nights. From how much the helicopter weighs during a heat wave, to what to wear under regulation flight suits and how the heat affects ill patients, our crews say it’s not as simple as drinking lots of water to beat the heat.

“We don’t have air conditioning in every machine and even if we do, we turn it off for takeoff and landing,” said nurse Cathie Drackett. “At those times it can be 35 degrees in an enclosed space, which can be challenging for the healthiest of people.”

At the beginning of every shift, pilot Ian Bonnell checks the short and long-term weather, the wind and weather ceilings and the weight of the crew members. He – and all of our STARS pilots – will know exactly how much more weight the helicopter can bear for the next mission.

Essentially, the hotter it is outside, the lighter the helicopter needs to be.

“Every little measurement of weight counts when we are striving for better performance, particularly at helipads,” he said.

For Drackett and her medical colleagues, her main concern during the warmer flights is air sickness.

“It can be hot and bumpy so patients become nauseous far more in summer than in the winter,” she said, adding she and her colleagues are more proactive about supplying patients with anti-nausea medication to make their time in the helicopter a little easier.

“It’s such an enclosed space and when we hit windy hot pockets in the air it becomes bumpier,” she said. “Some of the patients can also see the rotor blades going around so they get vertigo, a bit like car sickness.”

Meanwhile, all of our crews stay hydrated and dress as lightly as possible in natural fibers under their flight suits, to avoid overheating.

“It can be a little bit like a magnifying glass inside the helicopter under that hot sun,” said Bonnell.

It may also come as a surprise to learn that at STARS, our helicopters have slimmed down in the summer months.

“In this case, taking off the weight is really about performance,” said one of our aviation base managers, Grant Wudel, who is also a pilot.

In an effort to increase our safety margins and ability to operate at restrictive city center heliports, our teams have mined the helicopter front and back for any extras that have accumulated over the years.

“This weight loss significantly affects overall performance and ensures we are compliant with Transport Canada obstacle clearance regulations at helipads”, said Wudel.

Factors that stack up against performance include the weather and weight of the helicopter and its contents, including fuel, people on board and medical supplies.

“We can either add more powerful engines, which we have done in the past, or reduce the overall weight to be carried, because we can’t control the weather,” said Wudel. “So we took out everything we didn’t need, including duplicated items, paper maps and publications and some bags and kits that we either don’t use in summer, or can be uploaded for specific missions.”

Feel free to give our slimmed-down helicopters a second look when you see them next time.

Related Articles

Portrait of STARS pilot Captain Steve Curilla taken in the Calgary hangar in honour of his 3000th mission.
February 23, 2024 | Aviation, Our Team

STARS Pilot Reaches 3,000 Mission Milestone

A photo of C-FIFP being fuelled before a mission.
July 20, 2023 | Aviation, Community

Fuel caches extend our reach