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Thank you to our pioneers!

As part of Wiltshire Air Ambulance’s 30th birthday year we had a special visit by former aircrew.

Former Air Support Unit staff by Wiltshire Air Ambulance’s Bell 429 helicopter with current paramedic Craig Wilkins (far left), pilot Rob Collingwood (far right) and Kevin Reed, head of facilities and security (fourth from left).

The pilots, police officers and paramedics worked at the Air Support Unit (ASU), which operated the helicopter shared by Wiltshire Police and Wiltshire Air Ambulance from 1990 to 2014.

In January 2015 we became a stand-alone air ambulance using a Bell 429 helicopter and in May 2018 we moved into our purpose-built airbase at Semington, near Melksham.

Many of the former aircrew who visited our airbase worked at the ASU in the early years and they saw the advances that have taken place in both aviation and medical care.

For example, while paper maps are still used to plot the route to incidents our aircrew demonstrated how iPads are used to do the same electronically.

Specialist medical equipment was also demonstrated and they were shown the immersive simulation suite where scenarios, such as a road traffic collision, are displayed on the walls enabling our paramedics and doctors to practise their clinical skills in a realistic environment.

Kevin Reed, a former police officer who worked at the ASU and is now head of facilities and security at Wiltshire Air Ambulance, said: “It was a privilege to welcome former crew members to our airbase. Many of them had not seen each other since working together in the early 1990s so it was a great opportunity to catch up and reminisce on their experiences in those early and pioneering years.

“We owe everyone who worked at the ASU our gratitude, as collectively they helped paved the way for the development of Wiltshire Air Ambulance to what it is today - a stand-alone air ambulance delivering critical care to people who are seriously injured or unwell.”

Wiltshire Air Ambulance’s history is unique in the air ambulance industry in the UK, because unlike other air ambulances who used their own helicopters we shared a helicopter with Wiltshire Police and this partnership lasted for 24 years. The crew configuration was a pilot, a police observer and a paramedic.

The idea for a joint emergency services helicopter originated in 1988 when a Gazelle helicopter hired by Wiltshire Police for a six-week period to help with the policing operation of the summer solstice at Stonehenge was used to airlift a seriously injured woman to hospital following a road traffic collision on the A350 at Beanacre, near Melksham.

Another helicopter was hired the following year for a trial period and both Wiltshire Police and Wiltshire Ambulance Service deemed it a success, leading to the launch of a full-time joint emergency services helicopter on 15 March 1990.

Among the pioneering aircrew who visited our airbase were;

Pilot John Ball, who flew the helicopters which were trialled by Wiltshire Police and subsequently worked at the ASU for seven years from 1990.

John, who is retired and lives in Scotland, said: “It was great to be part of the Air Support Unit and to work there at the beginning. As we were the first joint police helicopter and air ambulance in this country we felt we were pioneers and other police forces and ambulance services visited us to see how we worked.

“To be able to give patients a much better chance of survival because of the speed and flexibility of the aircraft was a great advantage.

“Originally the aircraft was used to ‘swoop and scoop’ (landing and taking patients to the nearest hospital as quickly as possible), but over time the skills of the paramedics increased and we spent longer treating patients at incidents before taking them to hospital.“

Reflecting on the facilities at our airbase he said: “It’s amazing. What we see now is the progression of Wiltshire Air Ambulance and how technology has moved on.”

Paramedic Alan Morris first worked at the ASU from 1990 to 1993. He latterly became an operations manager for the ambulance service in Wiltshire and his responsibilities included air support.

Alan, who is retired and lives in Warminster, said: “There was a selection process for paramedics to work on Wiltshire Air Ambulance and from the beginning those of us who worked on it didn’t want to be seen as someone special. We wanted to be accepted by the rest of our ambulance colleagues in Wiltshire as paramedics, but we were using a different mode of transport.

“We had a great rapport with the pilots and the police observers at the ASU – everyone did their bit. We saw it as an honour to work there and we were ambassadors for Wiltshire Air Ambulance and Wiltshire Police.

“As time went on the paramedics on Wiltshire Air Ambulance developed additional skills and this improved the service to the public. The ambulance service gives a good grounding for paramedics before they work on Wiltshire Air Ambulance and long may it continue.”

Police officer, Inspector Brian Murdoch, was involved in setting up the ASU and was in charge of it when it began operating full-time from 1990 and worked there until 1993.

He said: “It was wonderful working on the joint helicopter. Wiltshire Police’s motto was ‘first and best’ and we laid claim to that for the ASU because we were the first combined police helicopter and air ambulance in the country.

“It was rewarding working with our paramedic colleagues, with all the crew trained to support each other with their specialist roles thereby emphasising the joint role.

“The police observers would help to raise awareness by giving talks to the public, along with the paramedics. The public were so enthusiastic to support Wiltshire Air Ambulance because they saw it as theirs and the donations came in.”

Brian, who is retired and lives near Salisbury, added: “It’s wonderful to see how Wiltshire Air Ambulance has developed. While technology has moved on, what hasn’t changed among the team is the nucleus of professionalism, enthusiasm and commitment.”

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