The teams that man Hampshire and Isle of Wight’s Air Ambulance have saved countless lives, flying to the rescue of those in need all over the county. It’s heroic work, with the crew ready to leap into action at a moment’s notice.

But, does that need to fly with little or no warning present a challenge for Southampton Airport’s air traffic controllers? It was a question I put to Helen Pallant, a controller three years out of the NATS training college in Fareham and now an integral part of the team at Southampton tower.

“It can be a challenge yes, especially during busy times, but they are incredibly professional and we will always do our absolute best to accommodate them,” Helen said. “You always make room for an ambulance on the road, and it’s no different for us in the air.”

With Southampton General Hospital now the major trauma centre for the region, access to the hospital often takes the helimed straight through the arrival and departure routes for the airport. “We will always try to clear a direct path for them if we possibly can,” Helen continues, “even if that occasionally means we need to interrupt traffic at the airport. I remember having to break off three inbounds to allow the helimed – which was carrying children from a road traffic accident – to get to the hospital as quickly as possible.”

Southampton Airport might not handle the same amount of flights as Heathrow or Gatwick, but it operates in a busy and unpredictable air traffic environment. The Solent Control Zone is a popular area for General Aviation pilots and in parts is only 10 miles across. That coupled with the proximity of Bournemouth Airport means there is a lot to keep on top of for its controllers. Trust with the helimed pilots is therefore absolutely vital.

Usually that’s a trust built up exclusively over the radio waves, so it was a rare privilege to be at the airport the day the crew of Helimed 56 – which includes two doctors, a paramedic and pilot – landed for a special ATC liaison visit. There was obvious warmth between Helen, her fellow controllers and pilot Captain Dave Bronniman and a delight in finally being able to put faces to very familiar voices.

“I’ve been speaking to many of these controllers everyday for years, so it was wonderful to have the chance to meet and thank them for their help in person” said Dave.

“It’s a mutually supportive relationship. We try to give as much notice as we can and they will bend over backwards to help us. It’s very reassuring to know that when time is of the essence, we can rely on the team here to do whatever they can to help.”

Changing places: Helen in the cockpit of Helimed 56

Changing places: Helen in the cockpit of Helimed 56

And Helen’s support for the air ambulance doesn’t end at the control tower. In February she’s endeavouring to climb Kilimanjaro with the aim of raising at least £3,500 – around the amount needed to keep the air ambulance flying for a day. It’s a timely reminder that this life saving service is a charity that’s funded entirely by donations.

Helen added: “You can’t predict when you or a loved one will get into an accident or a dangerous situation and need their help. Working as a controller, I’ve seen just how much they are relied on and called out and how professional and efficient they are to work with.”

It was fantastic to spend time with the helimed crew and controllers at Southampton – a special relationship that’s mirrored all over the country between NATS and the flying units of all the emergency services.


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