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Dartmouth-Hitchcock helicopters get new navigation system

DHART pilot Scott Caunter moves the recharging station away from a helicopter while waiting for the next call at DHMC. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

DHART pilot Scott Caunter moves the recharging station away from a helicopter while waiting for the next call at DHMC. (Valley News - Sarah Priestap)

The medical helicopters flying out of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center can fly more often and in worse weather, now that the hospital has rolled out a new airspace navigation system.

The system, essentially a flight plan that links 30 hospitals between New Hampshire and Vermont, is the first of its kind anywhere in the world, said Frank Erdman, director of DHART, the helicopter program.

It means that pilots will be able to navigate the region’s mountainous terrain in difficult conditions – such as low clouds or fog – that would have grounded them before, Erdman said. The plan was approved by the Federal Aviation Administration last month, enabling the DHART program to respond to more emergencies around the region.

“We had the equipment, we had the people, we had the training, we just didn’t have the plan for how to use that best,” Erdman said in a recent interview.

The DHART program, an acronym for Dartmouth-Hitchcock Advance Response Team, has been around since 1994. It has nine pilots and a staff of 65, with helicopters based at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and also at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport in Manchester.

DHART pilots fly out several times a day and respond to roughly 1,500 calls per year. They could do more, Erdman said, but are often prevented from flying because of difficult weather. If, for example, fog made it difficult for pilots to see where they were going, the helicopter could not fly out.

The plan approved by the FAA last month gets around some of those problems because it allows pilots to fly helicopters along predetermined routes using their instruments instead of relying solely on visibility. Commercial airplanes have long used “instrument flight rules,” or IFR, to travel between airports. The difference is that airplanes fly much higher in the sky through clouds, making IFR necessary to guide the plane along its course. Until now, no such plan has existed for helicopters flying at low altitudes between hospitals.

Sometimes, DHART pilots would fly out on a call when the sky was clear in Lebanon, only to hit bad weather elsewhere and be forced to abort the mission and turn around. This new plan allows them to continue to their destination.

The region’s mountainous terrain presents an additional challenge, said Scott Caunter, a DHART helicopter pilot. Before this new plan, pilots needed clear conditions so they could see where they were going.

“Realistically, we can’t get very far out the door because of the mountainous terrain,” Caunter said. “What this program allows us to do is get up and over the terrain.”

There are some other medical flight operations with IFR systems, but nothing that connects the routes between hospitals into an integrated system covering two states, Dartmouth-Hitchcock officials said.

Dartmouth-Hitchcock has been developing this plan for six years. During that time, DHART officials have been working with an engineering firm to meticulously map the entire region using GPS technology and draw up a series of routes for pilots to follow using their flight instruments. The routes link 30 hospitals in Vermont and New Hampshire, from large ones such as Fletcher-Allen in Burlington, Vt., to smaller hospitals like Gifford Medical Center in Randolph, Vt.

The plan has been rolled out over the past 12 months, training staff and getting the hospitals connected.

Erdman expects it will
allow DHART to add 150 flights annually. Since April, it has resulted in 60 additional flights, enough to recoup the $600,000 Dartmouth-Hitchcock spent developing the

Gifford relies on DHART several times a year to transport only the most urgent cases, said Martin Johns, medical director of the hospital division at Gifford. These are cases when the difference between a 15-minute helicopter ride to Lebanon and driving 40 minutes in an ambulance could be life or death for a patient.

“The impact of this could be pretty widespread,” he said.

There are still some restrictions on when helicopters can go out on a call. Severe weather, such as a thunderstorm or icy conditions, is still enough to ground them.

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