The Daily Item, Sunbury, PA

The Danville News

January 21, 2014

Arctic air ideal for Life Flight

— DANVILLE — While the cold winter temperatures pose a very real problem to people, they’re actually an ideal condition for pilots tasked with saving lives.

Helicopters used by Geisinger’s Life Flight team perform much better in lower temperatures as the denser air makes the aircraft’s rotor system much more efficient.

“The helicopters don’t mind it,” said Jerry Splitt, program manager for Life Flight. Last week, when temperatures were at their coldest so far, the aircraft didn’t even slow down. “At those temperatures the aircraft performance is superb, it’s the best,” said Richard Smith, Life Flight pilot and director of aviation operations.

During the cold weather from Jan. 5 to Jan. 7, the Life Flight crew made a total of 13 flights.

Winter weather does affect the staff, who maintain the craft, pilot it and care for patients aboard it.

All crew wear several layers of clothing while aboard. The interior of the helicopter is heated, and can maintain a temperature between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit if needed. However, it is sometimes necessary for the crew to disembark from the helicopter after it has touched down at an emergency site to wait for patients to be brought to them for transport.

Starlett Bixby, a Life Flight nurse, said she and other crew have all had survival training and know how to make fires or shelters if the helicopter ever needs to make an emergency landing. No helicopter has ever needed to do so yet, Splitt said, but it pays to have all Life Flight staff prepared for such an event. The helicopters usually fly over an inhabited area, such as towns or highways, so that if they ever need to set down they can quickly find assistance.

Once the patients are ready to go, the crew keeps them warm with tools such as hot packs, extra blankets, warm IV fluid and foil wraps designed to retain body heat.

Geisinger has six Life Flight helicopters, which can hold two patients each.

What pilots cannot do is fly in icing conditions such as sleet and freezing rain. If pilots see an icy glaze start to form on the helicopter, they need to turn around immediately. Pilots usually notice this pretty quickly if it starts to happen, Smith said.

Life Flight makes heavy use of computers and other tools to monitor weather forecasts so they can stay out of such situations, Splitt said.

Maintenance work on the helicopters can also be time-consuming in winter. While the aircraft are kept in heated hangars to prevent build-up of ice, they need to be taken outside to properly balance rotors. The maintenance crew needs to handle cold wrenches and other tools to do their work. They all wear several layers when performing such tasks, Splitt said.

“We want to have the safest program we can have,” he said.

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