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AW139 supporting COVID-19 operations in Canada


Twelve Leonardo AW139s, accessing helipads daily at regional hospitals throughout Canada’s most-populous province, are the most recognizable life-saving vehicles of Ornge’s air and land ambulance fleet. (Photo: Ornge)

Ornge and STARS Air Ambulance, two of Canada’s primary air ambulance operators, shared updates with Leonardo about how they are leveraging the Italian aircraft maker’s AW139 helicopter to overcome challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Ornge provides a vital lifeline to the people of Ontario with a large, coordinated fleet of air and land vehicles operating out of 12 based across the country’s most-populous province – with 13.4 million people, according to a 2016 census, followed by Quebec with 8.1 million and British Columbia with 4.6 million – and covering nearly 11 per cent of Canada’s total land area.

Launched in 2005 as a non-profit and headquartered in Mississauga, Ornge on its Facebook profile notes that more than 60 per cent of its patient transports occur north of Sudbury, providing an important access point to critical health care services for remote populations. The Ornge fleet includes 12 Leonardo AW139 helicopters, eight Pilatus Next Generation PC-12 airplanes and 13 Crestline Commander land ambulances.

“Like every healthcare organization, the health and safety of Ornge staff and patients is our top priority,” said Joshua McNamara, Ornge’s public relations officer. “Ornge staff have adapted to the pandemic and helped implement a number of innovative solutions including enhanced telemedicine support, an expanded Critical Care Land Ambulance program and more.”

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The 12 AW139s, accessing helipads daily at regional hospitals throughout Ontario, are the most-recognizable life-saving vehicles of the Ornge fleet. The helicopters have provided vital service since the start of the current coronavirus pandemic. “The AW139 is a state-of-the-art aircraft allowing Ornge to access patients in remote locations. Additionally, the AW139 travels faster and allows our crews to transport patients safely due to state-of-the-art navigation and on-board technology,” said McNamara. “The range, speed, and versatility of the aircraft allow us to respond to a variety of types of patient transports, which is critical as we respond to COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients across the province.”

Also catering to remote areas and communities, as well as long stretches of highway, STARS serves Western Canada from six bases across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In providing an update of its current pandemic activities to Leonardo, the air ambulance operator explains it is seeing around 12 per cent of its missions involve patients with influenza-like illnesses, which may include COVID-19 cases.

“Our team has adapted very well to the challenges posed by Covid-19,” said Mike Haska, director of marketing and communications at STARS. “We have undertaken significant efforts to develop and train crews on enhanced procedures and secure supplies of critical equipment to protect our crews.”

Within the STARS fleet are three AW139s, alongside other aircraft, which enables the non-profit organization – founded in 1985 – to operate 24/7. “The AW139 is a modern and capable helicopter for EMS operations,” said Haska. “We continue to see steady mission volumes across our bases so ensuring we are ready to respond to patients in need, whether their medical circumstances involve COVID-19 or not, is crucial.”

Haska explains the operation’s AW139s have been adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic, noting not only are the crew members more adept and learned with wearing PPE, but that they have also adapted the helicopter’s configuration and equipment placement within each aircraft to suit the mission. “Select equipment or supplies [can] be off-loaded prior to responding to a Covid-19-positive or suspected patient to reduce the amount of decontamination required post-mission,” he said.

Haska explains STARS’ air-medical crews are extremely experienced and highly trained to deal with many types of infectious diseases, meaning the team’s existing processes were able to deal with the COVID-19 threat. He explains, however, that the frequency has increased in which the crews now use PPE like masks, gowns and gloves on all types of missions. “This is to ensure our staff are not required to self-isolate in the event a patient is later found to have been COVID-positive. This helps us ensure we can maintain 24/7 operations across our bases.”

Leonardo, through its support of both organizations during the pandemic, notes this thorough approach during the pandemic is similar to Ornge, which has enhanced its cleaning to high-touch areas. “Leonardo has provided Ornge with instruction for approved methods of disinfection in the cockpit and cabin for the AW139,” said McNamara. “The company remains supportive and responsive and continues to provide seamless support for maintenance activities since the onset of Covid-19.

“We’re also grateful that, as the world faces a strain on the supply chain due to numerous requests and organizational shutdowns, Leonardo’s supply chain remains uninterrupted and Ornge continues to receive the necessary parts to maintain our aircraft.”

Leonardo notes it is working closely with both STARS and Ornge as the organizations adher to guidelines and directives from the provinces’ health authorities, as well as Transport Canada regulations. The twin-engine AW139 is operated around the world and, in September 2019, the 1,000th helicopter of the type was delivered. Leonardo describes the helicopter is an ideal EMS platform with its spacious and configurable cabin which can accommodate up to 15 people.