Bigger and better

By Kelly Ducote / The Observer August 14, 2013 10:11 am

Pilot Brandon Hiller cleans the windows of the Life Flight Network “Koala” helicopter at the La Grande base Tuesday. La Grande and other regional bases recently received new AugustaWestland 119Kx helicopters with increased safety features. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
Pilot Brandon Hiller cleans the windows of the Life Flight Network “Koala” helicopter at the La Grande base Tuesday. La Grande and other regional bases recently received new AugustaWestland 119Kx helicopters with increased safety features. (Chris Baxter/The Observer)
 

Life Flight Network adds new aircraft to fleet, Air Methods delayed in starting service  

Some shiny new metal and blades arrived at the Union County Airport earlier this summer. Life Flight Network recently placed new “Koala” helicopters into service, including one in La Grande.

The AugustaWestland 119Kx helicopters have been rolling out over the past few weeks at bases throughout the region. Life Flight officials say the new aircraft have boosted features to make the air ambulance service safer.

“It’s an exciting opportunity to be able to purchase new aircraft that have state-of-the-art aviation packages,” said Regional Director Mike Weimer. “There’s no doubt it will improve our ability to provide services.”

One aircraft is committed to La Grande 24/7, with neighboring bases helping out if multiple flights are needed.

“It’s a big overlap if you look at the map,” said Tim Peck, the La Grande base manager.

The features of the new aircraft include an avionics package with synthetic vision, night vision goggles, satellite weather and tracking and a Helicopter Terrain Avoidance Warning System.

Peck and Weimer said the new helicopters don’t change Life Flight Network’s operations but do make them safer.

“It increases the safety margins,” Peck said.

The new aircraft come on the heels of some changes to the way Life Flight delivers its service. A Marion County judge issued a preliminary injunction that ended Life Flight’s relationship with Air Methods, the company that provided aircraft and pilots before Aug. 1. Air Methods had planned to start its own operation in La Grande at the start of the month under the name Air Life.

However, the plan has been stalled due to some licensing issues.

“We are slightly delayed waiting on some final, standard items related to the EMS license,” said Tracey Budz, Air Methods corporate communications director. “We have a few more staffing positions to fill, but the hangar and aircraft are ready to go.”

Budz said they are aiming to be running by Sept. 1.

Weimer said the addition of Air Methods will not affect Life Flight Network’s day-to-day activities here. Many of the staff stayed on with Life Flight, he said.

That means crews will continue to be on call at the airport base, ready at a moment’s notice.

“We have a very short time leash,” Peck said. “We don’t finish our meals.”

Weimer added that the introduction of competition does not change the way Life Flight Network operates.

“Providing a base operation in a place like La Grande is a big commitment. It’s a commitment we continue to honor,” Weimer said.