CALSTAR provides air ambulance services throughout central and northern California.

FAA Approves IFR System for Air Ambulance Firm

California Shock Trauma Air Rescue (CALSTAR), a non-profit organization that provides air ambulance services to all of central and northern California as well as parts of Nevada, said it has the first helicopter in the world modified to allow for dramatically enhanced abilities and increased safety to make landings while using Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). It is a system modification that will, according to CALSTAR President and CEO Joseph Cook, save countless numbers of lives.

Paul G. Likens, lead pilot for CALSTAR IV in Ukiah, Calif., explained that the new system will allow pilots to make significantly more landings in inclement weather. As an example, when making an approach to the Ukiah Municipal Airport, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) mandates that if pilots bring their aircraft down to an altitude of 1,107 feet above ground and still cannot see the landing site they must abort the landing. The new vertical guidance system will allow pilots to descend their aircraft to 364 feet to see the landing site. "This is a tremendous difference," Likens said. "We will be able to make landings that up until this modification would have been impossible."

Deborah Pardee, director for CALSTAR's Coastal Valleys Region, said flight crews are still training on the modified helicopter routes and approaches but they should be in use in the very near future.

Cook and Pardee noted that Likens worked tirelessly in collaboration with the system's developers--Hickok & Associates of Orange Beach, Ala., designer of the approaches and low altitude routes, and Garmin International of Salem, Ore., designers of the aircraft avionics systems--for more than two years to get the system approved by the FAA. "It was a tedious, difficult process but it was well worth it," Likens said. "Without a doubt we will be able to more safely complete the transportation of the gravely ill and victims of trauma."

In addition to the new flight system, Hickok & Associates was able to establish nearly 200 miles of off-airway/feeder routes to provide Minimum Instrument Altitudes (MIA) en route to approaches. "What this means is that we will be able to travel directly, on our own private low altitude routes," Likens said.

Primary beneficiaries of the new system will be patients who need to be taken to or picked up from Ukiah Valley Medical Center (UVMC) in Ukiah, Mendocino Coast District Hospital (MCDH) in Fort Bragg, and Redwood Coast Medical Services (RCMS) in Gualala. Two years ago CALSTAR placed an Automated Weather Observation System at MCDH. "With the addition of these new approaches, CALSTAR is in the best possible position to pick-up or deliver patients during inclement weather, particularly to its coastal medical facilities," Pardee said.

Cook said that with CALSTAR having served as the pioneer for the new technology, he anticipates that many rescue helicopters throughout the world will be modified in a similar way. CALSTAR Director of Development and Outreach Mike Nichols said the improvements would not have been possible without the help of several very generous grants. "Our sincere thanks go out to the Allen-Heath Memorial Foundation, the Community Foundation of Mendocino County, the George and Ruth Bradford Foundation, Wells Fargo, and the Ukiah Wal-Mart Store," he said.

In September, CALSTAR will mark its 25th anniversary. Cook said that since the company's inception it has completed more than 38,000 flights with an excellent safety record that includes no aircraft accidents injuring either patients or crew members. All flight crews are made up of a pilot and two registered nurses. Pilots must have as a minimum a commercial pilot's certificate, an instrument rating, and 3,000 hours as pilot in command. CALSTAR is fully accredited by the Commission of Accreditation of Medical Transport Services (CAMTS), an internationally recognized agency that reviews, inspects, and provides credentials to medical transport organizations that meet a comprehensive list of established standards.

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