This brand new air ambulance is set to become a familiar sight in the skies over the Burnham-On-Sea area as it goes into operation this week.

Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance announced on Monday that its new AgustaWestland 169 (AW169) helicopter has entered into service.

It becomes the first AW169 to enter air ambulance operational service in the UK and is the culmination of several years of planning and development.

The aircraft was selected following an extensive evaluation process and the charity says it picked it for its “outstanding characteristics, superior capabilities and high safety standards”.

Bill Sivewright, Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance Chief Executive Officer, told “It has always been the Charity’s aim and clear vision to pursue clinical excellence; pairing Critical Care Teams with the outstanding capabilities of the AW169 is a natural development of that vision. Patient benefit remains our top priority and this was the single biggest criteria in selecting the new aircraft.”

“Our ambitions and clinical aspirations determined a particular requirement from whichever aircraft we selected. The capabilities and flexibility offered by the AW169 made it a clear winner and in our view it was the only aircraft which fully met our criteria.”

“Another major plus in selecting a new mark of aircraft is that you are taking advantage of the latest advances in technology. That means that it is safer and easier to maintain and operate.”

The medical equipment in the AW169 will not be hugely different to that which was carried on the charity’s previous aircraft, however the biggest difference is the space inside the cabin.

It allows the Critical Care Team to have complete access to a patient, head to toe; a significant benefit if a patient needs further intervention or treatment on-route to hospital.

Over the past few months, the life-saving service has increased its operating hours from 12 to 19 hours a day (7am-2am). During this time and in the hours of darkness, the crews have been deployed using a Critical Care Car.

Bill added: “We are most grateful to Specialist Aviation Services who operate the AW169 helicopter on our behalf. They have worked closely with our clinical team to develop a medical interior that will enable them to more fully meet the needs of our patients than ever before.”

“The AW169’s night flying capabilities mean that we can now move forward into providing full night HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) missions.”

“Our team will have the ability to fly directly to the patient without the need of any fixed or pre-established lighting which is a significant advantage. We are now looking forward to completing night HEMS training and subsequently operating the new aircraft for 19 hours a day.

“Our approach has been truly innovative and as a result the AW169 has had to undergo very intense scrutiny by the European Aviation Safety Agency. This is why it has taken a little longer than we had hoped for the aircraft to become operational, however it has certainly been worth the wait and we are delighted to now have clearance to fly.”

He continued: “The standard of clinical provision delivered by our Critical Care Team is arguably the best available anywhere. That is a bold claim but one that I make quite confidently. In the past year we have enhanced our team clinically, enhanced the service with the carriage of blood products increased our operational hours and can now ensure that these are all delivered in one of the most advanced helicopters available.”

“This, however, does not mean that we can rest on our laurels; our crews strive continuously to develop their knowledge and skills to ensure that the patients they attend receive the best treatment possible. Their challenge to the Charity is to provide them with the right tools for the job.”

“I am proud to say that we can meet that challenge head on because of the incredible support of the people of Dorset and Somerset. Through their support, as members of our Flight for Life Lottery, individual or group donations from events and even by remembering us in their wills, they enable us to be everything that they want from their air ambulance.”

Since launching in March 2000, Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance has flown nearly 12,000 missions. Its operational costs are over £2 million a year. The approximate cost per mission is £2,500. With no direct Government or National Lottery funding, it relies on the generosity of the public for support.

It is tasked as part of the normal ‘999’ emergency process by a dedicated Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) desk located at Ambulance Control (paid for by the South West Air Ambulance Charities).

The airbase is situated at Henstridge Airfield on the Dorset/Somerset border. From there, it can be at any point in the two counties in less than 20 minutes. More importantly, the helicopter can, if required, then take a patient to the nearest Major Trauma Centre in the South West within a further 20 minutes.

Its clinicians include a mixture of Senior Emergency Physicians, Intensive Care Consultants and Anaesthetists, Specialist Paramedics (Critical Care) and a small number of Paramedics and a Nurse who are working towards the ‘Specialist’ qualification.

The charity’s pilots are provided by Specialist Aviation Services Ltd, who operate the aircraft. They are carefully selected because air ambulance flights are typically more challenging than regular non-emergency flight services. They will have a great deal of experience in low-level operations and instrument flying.

More information on Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance can be found by visiting:

Pictured: The new Dorset and Somerset Air Ambulance AW169 helicopter; the larger cabin area giving full access to the patient; and inside the front seat