Ambulances in the Sky: Fixed-Wing Vs. Rotary

Posted on November 28, 2019 Josh Parker Aircraft Component

Ambulances aren’t just used on the ground to help trauma patients. “Air ambulance” refers to any form of medical transport that relies on flight for its method of travel, rather than the white-and-red trucks one typically sees on the streets. However, the term “air ambulance” is used for both fixed-wing aircraft and rotary-wing helicopters.

Fixed-wing aircraft consist of conventional airplanes that feature a set of wings that provide lift, and one or more engines that provide thrust via propellers or jet propulsion. Rotary-wing aircraft, however, rely on a vertical mast connected to engines and a set of horizontally-mounted propellers to provide both lift and thrust, which enable the aircraft to take off, land, and maneuver vertically. Both fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft are used as ambulances, each with distinct advantages over conventional ground ambulances in terms of speed. In emergency trauma situations, there is often a very narrow timespan to get the patient or patients to a trauma center to maximize their chances of survival and recovery, after all.

Many emergency professionals will call for air transport when travel time to the patient took too long, when the nearest trauma center is too far away (typically 20 to 25 miles or more), when traffic conditions make travel by ground too difficult, if the emergency involved multiple patients who would overwhelm a single trauma center, or if the patient in question requires Advanced Life Support-levels of care.

Both rotary-wing and fixed-wing aircraft play very different roles in terms of medical ambulances. Helicopters are often used as a substitute for ground ambulances, as their Vertical Take Off and Landing (VTOL) capabilities let them land almost anywhere. This is exceedingly useful for when the accident has occurred in a difficult-to-reach area, such as in the wilderness. However, the limited fuel capacity of helicopters impairs their range, so they are most frequently used in emergency situations. Fixed-wing aircraft require dedicated runways to take off and land, but they are much faster than helicopters and can travel much further. Therefore, fixed-wing air ambulances are more often used to transport patients from one hospital to another.

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