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Working at 15,000 feet

Life Flight crewman Ian Miller in the air ambulance. PHOTO/EMMA BROWN

After more than 470 flights, air ambulance crewman Ian Miller’s passion for flying has not wavered. Times-Age reporter EMMA BROWN spent a day in the heat of the action learning about Life Flight and what it does for Wairarapa.

Every day is a good day flying, Life Flight air ambulance crewman Ian Miller said.

Instead of looking out the office window, he spends his workdays at 15,000ft, transferring critically-ill hospital patients in the air ambulance.

There was no questioning Miller’s love for or dedication to his job when speaking with him.

While most people come into the role of crewmember from a medical background, Miller joined three years ago from an aviation background.

When the job opportunity came up, his wife said, “what a great combination of aviation and helping people”.

He said although you may have medical training “not everyone is built for the air”.

Life Flight provides a 24/7 nationwide air ambulance service transporting patients who urgently need specialist medical care.

The planes are like a flying intensive care unit staffed by specialist flight nurses, doctors, and crew.

“We can take people from one intensive care unit to the next and maintain the same quality of care in the aircraft.”

He said it was always best to treat patients in a hospital setting, but sometimes “you’ve just got to go”.

There are different hospitals around New Zealand that provide a higher level of care and the air ambulance is essential to get people to those places.

The planes are pressurised and equipped to fly at all times of the day and night for neonatal care, medical, and accident transfers.

Transfers in Wellington are done in the hangar out of the weather.

They have a lifter to board and disembark patients and heavy equipment.

Life Flight have two Jetstream 32 planes that fly an average cruising speed of 470kmh.

The crew have a rotating 12-hour shift all week long as well as an additional crew available from 10am-10pm Monday to Friday.

From 1am-6am there are no scheduled flights into Wellington, only emergency transports.

They have an average flight height of 18,000 feet but the planes can maintain a sea-level pressurisation flying at 15,000 feet.

The flight to Masterton takes about 20 minutes which was “quicker and nicer than driving over the hill”.

During the flight, all the crew wear headsets so they can communicate with each other.

Miller can call ahead to airports and hospitals to make sure arrangements are ready and provide updates so the transfer will go smoothly.

During his hundreds of flights on board, only twice has he transported someone known to him.

He always has empathy for the patient and their family.

It was great to be able to explain to the family what was going on with their loved one and provide support to them, he said.

“It is really good to be there for people.”

Thanks to his mother, an avid teddy bear collector, he has given out one of the toys to every transferred new baby.

Working for Life Flight was a rewarding job, he said, adding that you had to want to do it because the end of your shift didn’t guarantee that you were off duty.

Earlier this month, they did a transfer from Palmerston North to Auckland.

When they left, they knew they would be cutting it tight with regard to the pilots’ allowable duty hours [11 hours per shift] when it came to the return journey.

They had done all they could to be organised and efficient, but just missed the flight time by 20 minutes so the doctor, nurse and himself had to then catch an Air New Zealand flight back to Wellington.

Just as they were wrapping up Miller got a call from the hospital about a transfer in Napier.

After a quick call to the pilots, the team was on their way.

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