Wiltshire Air Ambulance was launched in 1990 and has experienced many changes to its service throughout its existence.
In 2011, the Wiltshire Air Ambulance Charitable Trust (WAACT) was formed to run the service, independent of the ambulance service.
A collaboration with Wiltshire Police ended in 2014, with the charity becoming a standalone operation a year later.
Then in 2018 Wiltshire Air Ambulance proudly moved to its own purpose-built airbase in Semington, near Trowbridge.
Follow the full timeline of our charity’s history below.
The journey so far
1988 The Beanacre mission that began it all
The idea for a joint emergency services helicopter originated when a temporary helicopter hired by Wiltshire Police to use for its summer solstice operation at Stonehenge was used to airlift a woman who was seriously injured in a road traffic collision on the A350 at Beanacre, near Melksham.
The crew onboard heard of the incident on their radios during flight and landed at the scene. They were told it was unlikely the woman would survive the journey to hospital by road, so decided to airlift her to the Royal United Hospital in Bath. The flight took five minutes and she survived.
1989 Trial period agreed
Following the Beanacre incident, Wiltshire Police decided to hire a helicopter for an extended three-month period and invited Wiltshire Ambulance Service to provide a paramedic to be part of the trial. The helicopter responded to criminal activities, while medical incidents were mostly road traffic incidents.
The experiment was deemed a success and it was agreed by all parties that the citizens of Wiltshire would be best served by establishing a joint emergency services helicopter.
1990 And so it begins...
On 15 March 1990 a full-time joint helicopter began operating, based at the police headquarters in Devizes. The helicopter was a Bolkow 105 and would remain in operation for eight years.
The crew comprised of a pilot (employed by Police Aviation Services), a police officer and a paramedic. The police officers were trained to assist the paramedics with their equipment, while the paramedics were given guidance to support with navigation, communications and videoing of pursuits.
1991 Wiltshire Air Ambulance appeal is founded
The Wiltshire Air Ambulance Appeal – the original charity set up to raise funds to pay to keep the air ambulance flying – is founded by Dr Dick Riseley-Prichard. He had been a key supporter of the service and focused on fundraising after retiring from the Royal Air Force.
Dr Riseley-Prichard also became vice-chairman of Wiltshire Ambulance Service, which provided office space for the charity’s part-time staff and volunteers.
1995 Working with the Police
The police paid for two-thirds of the running costs of the helicopter, which was based at the Air Support Unit in Devizes, still at the Police headquarters.
The charity had to provide a contribution of £134,000 each year, and the funds were raised through a variety of ways, including farmers’ auctions, coffee mornings and large legacies.
2001 A historic move into night flying
The service extended its hours of operation from 10 to 19 hours a day, mainly due to the demand for medical emergencies. This meant Wiltshire Air Ambulance became the first air ambulance in the UK to fly at night.
1998 A more advanced helicopter
In December, a more advanced helicopter – an MD 902 Explorer – was brought online to replace the Bolkow. The MD 902 Explorer had greater endurance, 80 per cent more cabin space and allowed side loading for patients. It was also quieter and safer because it had no tail rotor.
Meanwhile, Dot Whitehead opened a charity shop in Westbury to raise funds for the service. Dot was inspired to set up the shop after a relative was airlifted.
2007 Wiltshire Air Ambulance at risk
Wiltshire was in danger of losing its air ambulance because Great Western Ambulance Service (which had replaced Wiltshire Ambulance Trust) contemplated not renewing the contract with Wiltshire Police for the joint helicopter.
2008 We are saved!
A successful campaign, organised by the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald newspaper, led to the helicopter contract being renewed for a further five-year term.
2009 The Royal seal approval
The charity received the royal seal of approval when HRH The Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, agreed to become its patron.
HRH had visited the Air Support Unit in the previous year, meeting crew members, charity staff, volunteers, supporters and former patients.
The first task undertaken by HRH in her new role was to draw the numbers for the charity’s new Lottery scheme, which had launched to boost income.
2010 A lovely jubbly visit
Another famous face came to visit to celebrate the charity’s 20th anniversary, when actor Sir David Jason met the aircrew in Devizes. The Only Fools and Horses star was a patron of the Air Ambulances Association (which later merged with Air Ambulances UK).
2011 A new charity is born
Campaigners who were involved in the Gazette & Herald appeal to save Wiltshire Air Ambulance were now lobbying Great Western Ambulance Service to relinquish control of the charity.
The hard work paid off and a new charity, independent of GWAS, was formed in October 2011, called Wiltshire Air Ambulance Charitable Trust.
2012 Changing times in Westbury
The charity took over the running of the Charity Shop in Westbury following the sad passing of Dot Whitehead in December, aged 81.
2013 Honour for our founder
The charity’s trustees honoured Dr Riseley-Prichard for his 20-plus years of service and support to Wiltshire Air Ambulance at a special reception in Devizes.
He was presented with a model of the MD 902 Explorer helicopter by the Lord-Lieutenant of Wiltshire, Mrs Sarah Troughton.
“Any contribution I have made has really been a labour of love,” Dr Riseley-Prichard said at the time. “I’m absolutely inspired by the professionalism and enthusiasm of the pilots, paramedics and police observers.”
2014 Lottery launched
With the joint helicopter partnership with Wiltshire Police set to end, the charity began looking at ways to raise additional income.
Members of the Lottery were now being given the chance to play in a Superdraw for an extra £1 per week. A potential jackpot of £25,000 was up for grabs in the Superdraw and it proved extremely popular.
By now, the charity’s contribution had risen to £700,000 per year.
2016 A second Charity Shop in Devizes
Building on the success of the Westbury Charity Shop, the charity opened a second premises in Devizes.
The Major of Devizes, councillor Jane Burton, and TV star Paul Martin were on hand to cut the ribbon on Maryport Street.
2015 A new era as the Bell 429 arrives
A new era was heralded in on 9 January 2015, with the charity operating as a standalone air ambulance for the first time, albeit still based at the police headquarters in Devizes.
Now the charity would fly in a Bell 429 helicopter, with an aircrew configuration of one pilot and two critical care paramedics.
It was the first time in the UK that a Bell 429 was used for Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) work. In comparison to the MD 902, the Bell 429 is faster, more powerful and provides a bigger cabin with the latest in-flight technology.
Additionally, the charity begins carrying blood products on board in the form of O Negative red blood cells.
2017 Remembering Dr Dick Riseley-Pritchard
Dr Dick Riseley-Prichard sadly passes away at the age of 92, leading to a period of mourning for the charity. In a fitting tribute, the hangar at the new airbase (see 2018) is named after him.
The charity’s yearly fundraising target rose to £3.25million.
2018 Moving to Semington in our new home
Wiltshire Air Ambulance moved into its purpose-built airbase in Semington, near Trowbridge. It followed a lengthy search for an appropriate site and a successful capital appeal.
It was a major milestone for the charity, with all of its aircrew and charity staff under the same roof for the first time.
Staff moved into the premises in May, but had to move out again briefly a month later after the crew attended the second Novichok poisoning in Amesbury (they had also attended the first poisoning in Salisbury in March). It allowed authorities from Boscombe Down to check for contamination of the helicopter, critical care cars and airbase – there was none.
The official opening ceremony took place on 14 December 2018, with HRH The Duchess of Cornwall cutting the ribbon in a packed hangar.
2019 Gaining our own Air Operator Certificate
The charity – whose fundraising target had now increased to £3.75million – received their own Air Operator Certificate (AOC), which had previously been managed by the now defunct Heli Charter.
At the time, Wiltshire Air Ambulance was one of only four charities to hold their own AOC.
It meant the charity was able to return to flying HEMS missions in the Bell 429 after a short period where the helicopter was offline. In a nod to the past, they had also hired in an MD 902 over a three-month period.
The charity begins carrying plasma (LyoPlas) on board to complement the O Negative red blood cells.
2020 Covid-19 affects birthday celebrations
It was supposed to be the year that Wiltshire Air Ambulance “celebrated” its 30th anniversary – but then the Coronavirus pandemic hit.
The charity’s airbase was closed to the public and charity staff, who had to work from home. The crew continued working on the frontline throughout the pandemic, donning PPE and sometimes even full hazmat suits.
The Charity Shop in Westbury closed as the charity exercised a break clause in its lease of the premises. It came at a time when retail across the board was on a downturn and allowed the charity to focus all attentions on their Shop in Devizes.
The year 2020 also saw Wiltshire Air Ambulance called to a record number of 1,238 missions.
2021 A new target as doctors arrive
The charity saw its costs rise again to £4million a year as the charity enhanced its care by increasing the number of pre-hospital consultants (critical care doctors) shifts on its rota.
Previously doctors had offered themselves for ad-hoc voluntary shifts for a number of years, but now four doctors would bring their valuable skills and experience to enhance the lifesaving service further on a regular basis.
2022 Extended our blood units
Wiltshire Air Ambulance increases the number of red blood cell units carried on board its helicopter and critical care cars, meaning the charity can provide a level of care comparable with local hospital.
The clinical team add two units of O Positive red blood cells to the existing two units of O Negative red blood cells and four units of Lyoplas.
We were also proud to be handed the Pride of Wiltshire honour at the annual Wiltshire Life Awards.