Navigating a medical helicopter in Boston’s congested airspace can prove difficult, but Boston MedFlight has become the first in the country to utilize GPS technology to make the trip in a major metropolitan area.
While helicopter ambulance systems in New Hampshire and Maine have utilized GPS to land at hospitals, Boston MedFlight is the first in the country to use the technology in an area close to an airport, and in a city as big and busy as Boston.
“This provides us an additional level of safety,” said Rick Kenin, general manager for aviation operations at Boston MedFlight. “If the weather is cloudy, we could use instrument approach procedure to land at any of our five downtown helipads.”
Pilots can navigate in airspace one of two ways — using visual guidance, or using instruments to guide flight paths.
While Boston MedFlight has been able to navigate to Boston hospital helipads in good weather using visual guidance, and could land at airports in cloudy conditions thanks to radio beacon technology, the helicopters have been unable to land or take off from the helipads when the skies aren’t clear.
That meant that in poor weather, patients had to be flown to Bedford or Logan airport and then taken by ambulance to a downtown hospital.
Yet after five years of conversation with the FAA, Boston Logan and regional air traffic control, MedFlight has received approval to use GPS technology to navigate to helipads downtown, and has finalized the routes to get the helicopters to hospitals despite Logan traffic.
“There always is a potential that in a patient transport, minutes count,” Kenin said. “But these instrument approaches allow us a higher safety margin.”
Boston MedFlight transports upwards of 3,800 people a year, both on the ground and in the air. On average, 150 transports a month occur through the skies.
Helicopters can’t fly in icing conditions, meaning that helicopter transport in cloudy weather is really only an option in the spring, summer and early fall.
In those months, using GPS will allow an additional three to four helicopter transports a month to hospitals downtown.
Officials implemented the first phase of the project in September, which allows for GPS assisted transport to helipads at Boston Medical Center, Massachusetts General Hospital, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center and Tufts Medical Center.
MedFlight will now look to finalize GPS approaches to community hospitals.
Kenin said MedFlight will share the developments with the Northeast Air Alliance, a consortium of all the medical helicopter providers from Eastern New York to Maine.