Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex: 30th anniversary of life-saving service

PUBLISHED: 11:19 15 July 2019 | UPDATED: 11:19 15 July 2019

An AAKSS night fligt landing at King's Hospital, London (photo: Mark Turner)

An AAKSS night fligt landing at King's Hospital, London (photo: Mark Turner)

Copyright Mark Turner 2019

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex serving the residents of Kent

When lining up to start the 2015 Tonbridge Half Marathon, little did Barney Burgess know that less than two hours later his life would be in the hands of the doctors and paramedics of Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex.

Keen runner Barney, now 47, suffered a cardiac arrest less than a mile from the finish. Luckily for the Bidborough resident, there were fellow runners and marshals trained in CPR on hand.

The air ambulance was quickly called and got to him in minutes. Having been treated by the side of the road Barney was airlifted to King's College Hospital, London, where he spent the next fortnight.

"Without the early intervention on the course and specialist treatment given in the helicopter before arriving at King's, it is highly unlikely that I would be here today. As a result, I was keen to see how I could help by way of a thank you," he says.

When a vacancy to be a trustee arose, Barney applied to the charity and was accepted in November 2017. He spends one or two days a month working with the management team, mainly on finance and operational issues.

Back at work full time in the world of finance, Barney is taking regular exercise and spending time with his wife and children.

This year's Tonbridge Half Marathon, organised by Tonbridge Rotay Club, will see Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex as the Club's headline charity in recognition of the ambulance and aircrew's role in saving Barney's life. The Rotary Club of Tonbridge donated £620 from fundraising in 2018 to AAKSS, and hopes to exceed that at the 2019 Half Marathon on 6 October.

That mission to save Barney was one of around 2,500 undertaken every year, with two-thirds of patients being taken to major trauma centres such as King's College Hospital.

Chair Helen Bowcock with Tracey Crouch, following a donation organised by the Kent MP (photo: Mark Turner)Chair Helen Bowcock with Tracey Crouch, following a donation organised by the Kent MP (photo: Mark Turner)

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the air ambulance serving the residents of Kent, and there can be few charities that are held in such esteem for the life-saving work they do.

Dr Helen Bowcock, Chair of AAKSS, says: "We're immensely proud to have served the people of Kent for 30 years, and we are very conscious this would not have been possible without the support we have received from the local community.

"Thanks to our volunteers and fundraisers we are able to dispatch our highly skilled pilots, doctors and paramedics to deliver the best possible emergency medical care to people with life-threatening injuries.

"We're delighted to have Barney as a member of our Board and he brings a particularly valuable perspective as someone whose life was saved by our service."

It is clear AAKSS is making a difference and saving lives. Last year, its crews attended 2,465 call-outs and treated and transferred 1,662 patients, with 1,154 of those missions relating to incidents in Kent.

Each flight is dispatched via 999, and the crew of two pilots and a medical team, including a doctor and paramedic specifically trained for Helicopter Emergency Medicine Service (HEMS), provide round-the-clock cover.

From receiving the call and getting airborne, the team can be at an incident anywhere in Kent, Sussex or Surrey in less than 25 minutes.

Up, up and away - AAKSS in actionUp, up and away - AAKSS in action

As Leigh Curtis, Executive Director of Service Delivery at AAKSS, says: "For our patients, every second really is precious. In many cases survival can depend on how quickly they receive a time-critical treatment such as being placed into an induced coma after a brain injury, having chest surgery to breathe again or being given an emergency blood transfusion if they are bleeding.

"These interventions are complex and as a result normally only available in a hospital, however, despite the additional challenges of performing these procedures at the site of an incident, often at night, and then managing them in a helicopter flying at 150 miles per hour, our doctors and paramedics safely bring the skills of the hospital to the patient's side, delivering these life-saving treatments sooner to hundreds of patients a year."

The charity can count a number of national milestones during its 30 years of service. On 26 September 2013 it became the first air ambulance to operate its helicopters around the clock and since then has flown more than 13,250 missions, of which around 4,000 were at night. Medical and operational techniques it has pioneered have been adopted by other air ambulance services around the world. The service also benefits from being able to use an 'Alpha' call sign, which means the air ambulance is given priority routing - a little like having a blue light in the sky.

The latest AW169 helicopters in the fleet increase this benefit still further as they are quicker than previous models, being able to reach a patient on average three minutes sooner and make the trip to hospital five minutes faster.

Each of the air ambulance's 17 pilots has thousands of hours of flying experience, many of them while serving in the military or in challenging flying environments such as the North Sea oil industry.

A key focus of the charity is on constantly improving the impact of its emergency procedures, which has involved working with other medical professions and universities. For example, the HEMS team at AAKSS has honed its skills and procedures by adopting the philosophy of cycling coach Sir David Brailsford and his idea of marginal gains.

The air ambulance hasn't been without its own tragedy. In July 1998, all three crew aboard were lost after their helicopter crashed due to mechanical failure while returning to its base at Rochester Airport following an aborted call to a road accident.

David WelchDavid Welch

An outpouring of grief across Kent sparked support from the public to ensure the vital service was swiftly reinstated and that the crew, pilot Graham Budden and paramedics Mark Darby and Tony Richardson, would never be forgotten. A memorial to them stands at Blue Bell Hill.

Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex is largely reliant on income from the general public to fund its operations and needs to raise more than £11m a year to keep flying. With an extensive calendar of events, whether it's open-air cinema, carol concerts or the weekly lottery, there can be few people in Kent who don't come into contact with the charity.

With the service now operating 24/7 there's even greater pressure on the dedicated volunteers and fundraisers. Lynne Harris, head

of income generation, says: "We're very lucky to have thousands of people who are actively fundraising for us, whether it's challenging themselves to do a marathon, a 10k, a skydive or managing our collection tins in pubs and shops across Kent."

A current AAKSS fundraising initiative offers the chance to win a brand new Mini. Supplied by Barrett's Mini in Canterbury, the car is being raffled to raise money for the charity's life-saving work.

Saving lives at night

The time taken for Kent residents to get specialist trauma treatment at night has been dramatically shortened, with King's College Hospital NHS Foundation Trust becoming the first major trauma centre in London with a fully operational 24/7 helipad.

With the extended operating hours, patients in the hospital's catchment area of Kent and south-east London can now be airlifted to King's by AAKSS in less than 30 minutes at any time of the day or night - something that could make the difference between life and death for seriously injured people.

Previously operational between the hours of 7am and 9pm, all patients requiring specialist trauma treatment and care outside those hours were taken to King's via road ambulance, which could take up to two hours for patients on the Kent coast.

The King's helipad was funded entirely through charitable donations from the hospital's generous supporters, King's College Hospital Charity and the HELP Appeal. AAKSS is funding the additional operational costs estimated at £100,000 per year.

For more information about Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex and how to support its life-saving work, visit


David Welch is the new Chief Executive of Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex. After an early career in retail management, he switched track to pursue international aid and development work including in conflict-torn countries such as Angola, Rwanda and Bosnia. David then led a number of health-related charities in his native Scotland and the north of England.

Currently CEO of Leeds Cares, a charity supporting the health and wellbeing of the wider community in partnership with Leeds Teaching Hospitals, he starts his new role with AAKSS on 1 August.

David, who is a Council Member of the Association of NHS Charities, a member of the Institute of Fundraising, a former Rotary Club Founder Secretary and President and former Chair of the National Association of Hospice Fundraisers' will take over from Michael Docherty, the charity's interim Chief Executive since August 2018 who will now return to the Board as a Trustee.

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