Pilot Program

Written by Niki D’Andrea Category: History Issue: April 2015
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Of the many medical ripple effects of the Vietnam War, one of the most important was the advent of helicopter evacuations in medical emergencies. And though the low deserts of Arizona couldn’t be  further from the bug-filled jungles of ‘Nam, the Grand Canyon State was the launch pad for the first medical helicopters in the U.S.

Terry Miyauchi, Aviation Administrator for the Arizona Department of Public Safety, says the U.S. Army’s Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic (MAST) program was so successful that a civilian version called Air Medical Evacuation Services (AMES) was developed in the spring of 1969. “It was during that Vietnam era that the ‘golden hour’ concept came – before that, the term didn’t exist,” Miyauchi says. “In Vietnam, they said, ‘Hey, if we can get the trauma patient to the trauma center in an hour or less, their chances of surviving are greatly enhanced.’ That’s how the term ‘the golden hour’ came about. That program in Vietnam was so successful... they then took those Vietnam-era helicopters and strategically staged them in Western states, where distances to trauma centers are greater.”

Thanks to a $304,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, the Arizona Highway Patrol worked in concert with Arizona State University and Arizona Helicopters Inc. (now Air Services Int’l.) to start the AMES project on Memorial Day of 1969, with six highway patrol officers, five pilots and two Fairchild Hiller FH-1100 helicopters (like the one pictured above).

The AMES project ended in January 1970, when the Arizona National Guard and DPS took over the program. Commercial medical helicopter services started in 1979, including Lincoln Samaritan Services and Survival Flight (operated by Phoenix Baptist Hospital), but by 1985, Air Evac (now owned by PHI Air Medical) was the dominant medical-flight force in Phoenix.

Equipment has evolved along with the air-evac industry over the years. The initial FH-1100 helicopters were five-seat models powered by Allison Model 250 engines (now known as the Rolls-Royce M250). Today, Air Evac uses Astar 350 B3 and B3e helicopters that have Turbomeca Arriel turbine engines, as well as Bell 407s, a derivative of the military Bell 206L-4 LongRangers. Whatever the make and model Air Evac is using at any given time, they’re always easy to spot in the skies: The company’s signature color is bright utility yellow.

– Niki D’Andrea

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