Blue sky thinking
London’s Air Ambulance is able to reach any location in the city within 10 minutes. Aileen Scoular discovers how Metropolitan Freemasons came together to help put a second helicopter in the air
London is a city like no other. Covering some 600 square miles, and with a burgeoning population of 8.6 million – nearly 10 million if you include those entering the city within peak times – the average traffic speed is just nine miles per hour. Not a problem if you are driving to the supermarket; more worrying if you have just been involved in a traffic accident.
The city generates about 4,500 health-related calls to 999 every day and, typically, London’s emergency vehicles will reach an average speed of 20 miles per hour – better than the average, but potentially not fast enough if you have life-threatening injuries. And that’s where London’s Air Ambulance comes in: a remarkable charity established in 1989 when the Royal College of Surgeons criticised the care that seriously injured patients received in the UK.
Due to the importance of ‘the golden hour’ – the hour immediately following a serious injury – London’s Air Ambulance initially struggled to convince the medical profession that pre-hospital diagnosis and treatment could be implemented on the street or in the air. Since then, the charity has proved to the capital’s medical community – and the rest of the world – that life-saving surgery, anaesthesia and pain relief can all be delivered effectively out in the field.
Yet there have been challenges, not least the physical barriers: these helicopters can only be landed safely in daylight hours, which means that, after sunset or during adverse weather, London’s Air Ambulance service is delivered by high-performance cars. The other big challenge is, of course, funding.
It costs about £6 million a year to deliver what Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt has described as a ‘world-class’ service. And while the charity receives some funding from the NHS, it relies heavily on donations from the public – which is why corporate partnerships and individual donations are invaluable.
When London’s Air Ambulance launched its ‘Your London, Your Helicopter’ funding appeal in 2014, its mission was simple: the charity needed to raise in excess of £4 million to acquire, adapt and fly a second helicopter for five years. The second helicopter has been the dream of the outgoing chief executive, Graham Hodgkin, from the first day he joined London’s Air Ambulance in 2012. What he and his team did not necessarily expect was that the London Freemasons would step forward and pledge £2 million – an unbelievably generous donation that would make the dream a reality far sooner than he had hoped.
‘I remember the call coming in,’ he says. ‘I was at a conference where one of our patients was talking about having survived open chest surgery at the side of the road, and I got a message to call the office urgently. I assumed something was wrong, but when I called I could hear the whooping in the background! I knew even then that it would be the biggest step change in our organisation’s history. The generosity was an absolute game changer.’
‘I knew even then that it would be the biggest step change in our organisation’s history.’ Graham Hodgkin
For London Freemasons, it was a chance to donate to a charity that could, and would, genuinely make a difference to the lives of Londoners of every age and in every borough. Tony Shields, the Metropolitan Grand Charity Steward, recalls the moment the decision was made.
‘Quite simply, it was an absolute no-brainer,’ he says.
‘We were looking for a fundraising campaign to take us up to our Tercentenary in 2017, and they wanted to get a second air ambulance into the air as soon as they could. Everything about their vision appealed to us.’
The new helicopter, with its eye-catching ‘London Freemasons’ branding, has been up and running since January this year and, according to Hodgkin, ‘has completely changed the scale and resilience of our service’.
The partnership between London’s Air Ambulance and the London Freemasons is equally exciting. ‘It’s a magnificent organisation and the team has been brilliant at promoting our involvement,’ explains Tony. ‘This donation will probably end up being our largest to date. It has also been the cause that has met with most enthusiasm from our members, and we are delighted to have been able to establish such a positive fundraising partnership.’
Hodgkin is also very happy. ‘It’s about two organisations with the same values coming together, based on a unifying cause,’ he says. ‘We have worked very hard to show the lodges how their donation has been used and we’re thrilled that so many more people now know about what we do. It creates a groundswell of support and momentum, and helps to drive us towards a more sustainable future. We cannot thank the London Freemasons enough.’
The pilot’s story
Chief pilot at London’s Air Ambulance, Captain Neil Jeffers knows London’s skyline better than most
‘London has some of the busiest air space in the world because we have two airports, City and Heathrow, in relatively close proximity. We always have two pilots on board our twin-engined helicopters, and we are afforded a great luxury, which is “alpha priority” – you could describe it as blue-light driving in the sky!
‘Working for London’s Air Ambulance is a wonderful job for a helicopter pilot and having the luxury of two pilots means that one of us can help the medical team, if need be. From the helipad at the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, we can reach almost any location in London within 10 minutes by air and we decide where we’re going to land once we get there.
‘We never plan the landing site in advance because things can change in weeks, days or even minutes. We need an area of about 80 feet squared – about the size of a tennis court – but trees and new buildings are making safe landing spaces increasingly challenging.
‘With experience, we’ve learned how to identify the potential risks – loose tree branches, baby buggies and clothing can all be dislodged by the helicopter’s downdraft. Many people don’t realise that our helicopter throws down about 2.85 tonnes of air a second when it hovers, and that makes it incredibly windy.
‘Every day is totally different, although we always start with an aircraft check, an equipment check, a team briefing and a practice drill. Then, when the bell rings, you’re immediately up in the air, liaising with Heathrow and the fire crew, the medics, and the police on the ground. There’s this whole amazing teamwork process going on, which is brilliant. And, of course, we get to see how beautiful London looks from above.
‘There have been cases over the years where we can genuinely say, if London’s Air Ambulance hadn’t arrived at that time, the patient would not have survived. We get to save lives and that’s a huge privilege.’