Patients face delays in receiving life-saving treatment because helicopters in the UK’s search-and-rescue fleet are barred from landing at many hospitals.
Safety regulations prevent the new helicopters from landing on helipads on top of buildings, forcing pilots to set down casualties at alternative sites.
A £1.9 billion deal to privatise coastguard search-and-rescue operations was signed by the Department for Transport with the American firm Bristow in 2013. Twenty-two Sikorsky S92 and AgustaWestland AW189 helicopters are deployed at ten bases, taking over services previously manned by RAF, Royal Navy and civilian crews.
They fly faster and further than the Sea King helicopters they replaced but the Sikorsky S92 is not allowed to land on elevated helipads if the landing area is judged too small for the aircraft’s size in an emergency such as engine failure.
Hospital officials in Newcastle have raised the issue with Bristow and the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA). Flights are being diverted to a park and casualties taken to the city’s Royal Victoria Infirmary by ambulance.
The S92s, which can carry up to 21 people, flew 1,150 missions in the 12 months to March including during floods in Cumbria last December. The aircraft are based at three sites in Scotland, and in Cornwall, north Wales, and Lincolnshire.
Hospitals in Glasgow, Leeds, Bristol and Sheffield are also affected by the restrictions. The helipad in Newcastle was upgraded in 2011 to allow Sea Kings to land patients.
A CAA spokesman said: “Any helicopter landing at or departing from a hospital landing site must be able to do so safely and comply with the highest safety standards.
“We are working closely with the search-and-rescue operator to achieve the required level of safety, which will enable Sikorsky S92 helicopters to land at ground-level hospital sites.”
Bristow said it had faced “many legacy issues” since privatisation. It said: “Bristow is working with the CAA and the NHS to expand the number of areas our aircraft can safely land. In any event, we will land our coastguard helicopters as close to the receiving hospital as practicable.”
The Department for Transport and Maritime and Coastguard Agency said: “Sikorsky S92 helicopters are designed to operate in the extreme conditions typical of search-and-rescue operations. Smaller, lighter helicopters, such as those usually used by air ambulance services, would not be capable of performing these complex and challenging operations.”
There has been a surge in hospital helipad buildings in the past decade, mainly to receive patients from air ambulances. Most are at ground level but about a dozen are elevated, with more planned.
The DfT denied that it had blundered by buying helicopters that cannot land on rooftop helipads. “Where it is not possible to land on an elevated helipad, the helicopter crew will identify a suitable alternative landing site for quick transfer to hospital,” it said.