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Touching down: Helicopter that will be a lifesaver in Northern Ireland

By Claire McNeilly

Published 10/11/2016

The air ambulance outside Titanic Belfast
The air ambulance outside Titanic Belfast
Dr John Hinds

It's a sight that people here - particularly the road racing fraternity - thought they might never see.

But yesterday Northern Ireland's inaugural air ambulance touched down on Ulster soil on a flying visit ahead of establishing a permanent presence here.

The Air Ambulance Northern Ireland (AANI) charity will base two helicopters here, bringing us into line with other UK regions and the Republic in a move that will help save an expected 18 to 50 lives annually.

It follows a campaign by Dr Janet Acheson, whose partner Dr John Hinds was killed in a motorbike accident in July 2015 after unsuccessfully attempting to secure a Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) for the province.

Dr Hinds, one of the so-called 'flying doctors' of Irish road racing for his expertise in high-speed motorcycle trauma medicine, died during a practice session in the Republic. He was a long-term air ambulance lobbyist. The visiting helicopter - which will come into service by March - touched down at Titanic Belfast yesterday.

It will visit Enniskillen and Portstewart over the next two days.

It will provide the main service, while a second aircraft will be kept on stand-by to ensure minimum down time.

Decisions are yet to be made about staffing and a permanent base for the helicopter.

AANI chairman Ian Crowe said it was delighted to "publicly unveil the actual helicopter which will provide Northern Ireland's first HEMS service".

"The support we've received from the public and local businesses has been fantastic, and this visit is an opportunity to say thank you and encourage others to get involved," he said.

"Annual running costs for the service will be £1.8m and we're relying on the generosity of local people to help us raise these funds.

"AANI is continuing to work with our partners in health and social care to establish this lifesaving service, and we expect that the Health Minister will make a further announcement about the commencement of the service by the end of November."

The helicopters and pilots will be supplied by Babcock Mission Critical Services, the leading provider of HEMS in the UK. Operating from more than 20 bases, Babcock responds to hundreds of emergency calls a week. The medical staff and equipment will be provided and funded by the health service.

Health Minister Michelle O'Neill thanked the community for "their continued enthusiasm and support for the HEMS project" and "the trustees who have been working closely with the Ambulance Service and health commissioners to prepare for the implementation of HEMS".

Earlier this year then Chancellor George Osborne provided £4.5m from banking fines to get the service up and running.

Ray Foran, an AANI trustee, added: "AANI is very pleased to have secured two EC135 Airbus Helicopters for use in Northern Ireland.

"These modern twin-engine helicopters were designed specifically with emergency services operations in mind and come fully equipped for HEMS and air ambulance operations. The main helicopter will also be equipped with weather radar to maximise its effectiveness."

Among those who will have the opportunity to inspect the helicopter at close quarters during its visit to Northern Ireland are 100 supporters who have helped raise funds for AANI.

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