Electric aircraft: the future of HEMS? - Great Western Air Ambulance Charity
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Electric aircraft: the future of HEMS?

At the end of last year, Great Western Air Ambulance Charity (GWAAC) hosted a visit from Bristol’s Vertical Aerospace. A team of eight representatives, which included engineers, designers, and marketing and product sales professionals, wanted to learn how their electric aircraft, the VX4, could accommodate or even enhance the provision of Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS).

The team met with Anna Perry, GWAAC’s CEO, and Captain Jim Green. Jim is one of our pilots and the Regional Managing Pilot (South) for Babcock, our aviation partner.


About the VX4

The VX4 is an eVTOL aircraft (electric Vertical Take Off and Landing) and it has much to offer. It’s faster, quieter, greener and cheaper than current aviation-fueled helicopters. A prototype is currently being tested and certification is being sought for commercial usage.

Vertical Aerospace has already received many pre-orders from established and well-known commercial aviation firms. The question is, how can it benefit GWAAC and other HEMS services?


About Helimed 65

After initial introductions, the group moved to the GWAAC hangar for a tour of our EC135 helicopter, Helimed 65. Captain Jim explained why it is such a good aircraft for HEMS:

  • It has a large cabin relative to its size — perfect for carrying crew, a patient, and lots of kit
  • The high main rotor and shrouded tail rotor is important for the safety of the crew and people on the ground. And it protects the aircraft from damage when landing in long grass, bracken or uneven ground
  • It has good visibility so the crew and pilots can easily see hazards around and below them when taking off and landing
  • It needs a landing area of only 25 metres in diameter which makes it good for getting into tighter spaces
  • It can land on a slope of 14 degrees which is useful for some landing sites


Jim demonstrated the flexibility of Helimed 65 including how the forward-facing crew seat next to the pilot swivels to face inside the cabin, how the stretcher slides in and out, and where all the kit is stored.

The VX4 team asked lots of technical questions and discussed potential design tweaks to the VX4 so it could accommodate our needs.

The team acknowledged, however, that Helimed 65 has some features that cannot be built into the VX4, namely:

  1. Transporting a patient
  2. A big cockpit and greater visibility

Although these might appear to be significant stumbling blocks for an air ambulance, the discussion that ensued proved this is not necessarily the case.

The main priority for GWAAC is to be able to get the Critical Care Team and the kit to the patient as fast as possible. Once the crew is at the scene, the majority of patients can be treated and stabilised, and transported by road to hospital. Everything else can be a workaround.


Swings and roundabouts

After a tour of the helicopter, the group sat down to a presentation from the eVTOL team and to discuss the main obstacles highlighted during the tour.

Transporting a patient

Anna and Jim explained that from a clinical perspective, HEMS is evolving fast. We now only take a small percentage of patients to hospital in our helicopter (9.4% in 2022); most patients travel in a land ambulance with the crew accompanying them. This is because there is more room for the crew to treat and manage the patient and it is easier to pull over if the team needs to make clinical interventions en route.

GWAAC covers lots of urban areas in our region with good roads and hospitals so often transporting a patient to hospital by road is the most practical solution. Not being able to fly the patient to a hospital may be more problematic for other UK air ambulances that cover bigger rural areas.

A big cockpit and greater visibility

The closed cockpit of the VX4 poses a bigger problem for GWAAC. Jim explained the importance of having big windows and a crew member up front as an extra pair of eyes, especially for landing purposes.

Helimed 65 can operate as a HEMS aircraft because GWAAC’s aviation partner is granted exemptions and approvals to deviate from regulation by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). To assist in these exemptions, we need to ensure that our Specialist Paramedics in Critical Care (SPCC) are also trained as HEMS Technical Crew Members (HTCM) enabling them to assist the pilot with lookout and navigation whilst sitting in the forward-facing crew seat next to the pilot.

Because the VX4 has a closed cockpit, we would need to show the CAA how we can mitigate this lookout problem. The group discussed the possibility of having all the crew in the back with cockpit displays and cameras so they can still keep a lookout.


VX4 and HEMS: a match made in heaven?

Some other differences between the EC135 and VX4 include range, downwash, and the size of the cabin and required landing area. Everyone agreed, however, that as long as GWAAC can continue to provide the same level of outstanding critical care to patients, the obstacles highlighted during the tour could be overcome.

The consensus from both GWAAC and Vertical Aerospace was that the VX4 absolutely has a place in HEMS, it might just have a slightly different role to play.

Everyone concluded that GWAAC has the perfect airbase for a VX4; it has a good infrastructure and the potential for easy charging with fixed charging points.

At GWAAC we’re keen to explore any opportunities that help us achieve our vision that everyone receives the lifesaving pre-hospital emergency care they need, wherever they are, whenever they need it. And it’s important to us that these opportunities allow us to stay true to our commitment to leave as little impact on the environment as possible. The VX4, therefore, ticks two very big boxes.


Next steps

It’s now down to both sides to further consider the benefits of the VX4 within HEMS. While it might not be a direct replacement for Helimed 65, GWAAC’s EC135 helicopter, it could certainly enhance the lifesaving service we provide.  

“The whole point of eVTOL is to find a solution to doing things in a different way to what has been done before.”

Spokesperson, VX4 Team, Vertical Aerospace

Meanwhile, the VX4 undergoes further testing with a second prototype on the way.

Visit our sustainability web page to learn more about GWAAC’s commitment to the environment and what we’re doing to achieve our goal of being carbon-neutral by 2030.

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