Bigger, Faster, More Advanced

Flight Paramedic Jesse Blaire, 37, shows Snow Whitman, 6, and her brother Blaze, 5, the interior of Shands Hostpial's new EC-155 helicopter. The new model can travel 45 mph faster and can accommodate an extra patient and crew member, improving their capability to transport patients. ShandsCair held an open house on Saturday to celebrate the new addition.

UF Health Shands Hospital welcomed a swanky newcomer to its helicopter fleet this weekend.

ShandsCair, the critical-care transport unit of the hospital, revealed the largest, fastest and most advanced civilian aeromedical helicopter in the Southeast at an open house event on Saturday.

“I think that this was really one of the last puzzle pieces to complete our program,” said Staccie Allen, program director of ShandsCair. 

“This significantly improves our ability to go and get patients from farther distances,”she said.

The $12 million Airbus EC155 will be used to transport patients between hospitals or from the scene of an accident. 

Michael Kelley, program maintenance manager, said the EC155 is twice as big and can travel up to 50 mph faster than its predecessor, the Airbus EC135. 

The third addition to the fleet took two years to build, said Gwen Thomas-Howard, operations manager of ShandsCair.

“It was built in France especially for us,” Thomas-Howard said. “It’s like building a house.”

Kelley said the new helicopter will allow the flight team to carry more equipment and work on two patients, as opposed to one. 

It can also carry more fuel, which is a big improvement for night trips.

“In the middle of the night, it’s hard to get fuel,” said Don Irving, lead pilot for ShandsCair. “You have to call somebody and hope that they come out and meet you at 3 o’clock in the morning.”

Now, the team is able to do a whole trip without stopping at a hospital or an airport for fuel.

But before the helicopter is scheduled to go into service, the pilots have to learn how to fly it.

Kelley compared the learning process for pilots to someone driving an unfamiliar car.

“If you drive it for a couple of weeks straight you have it already figured out,” Kelley said.

The previous helicopter will be used as a backup once the new helicopter goes into service on June 11. 

This addition to Shands’ fleet is one of the ways the hospital is contributing to high-level emergency care in the area. 

“We’re bringing UF Health to the patient now,” Allen said.

[A version of this story ran on page 8 on 6/3/2014 under the headline "UF Health gains high-tech helicopter"]