23 February 2006

S2M-3877 Air Ambulance Trials (Orkney)

Scottish Parliament

Thursday 23 February 2006

[THE PRESIDING OFFICER opened the meeting at 09:15]

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Air Ambulance Trials (Orkney)

The Deputy Presiding Officer (Trish Godman): The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S2M-3877, in the name of Jim Wallace, on air ambulance trials in Orkney. The debate will be concluded without any question being put.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the proposal of the Scottish Ambulance Service to replace the Kirkwall-based BN Islander aircraft, successfully used for many years to provide air ambulance cover for Orkney, with an Inverness-based EC 135 helicopter which also covers a much wider area of the Highlands and Islands and beyond; further notes that trials of the helicopter on service in Orkney, carried out since spring 2005, have done little to provide assurances that it can provide even an equal level of service to that provided by the Islander aircraft, with particular concerns relating to its ability to fly in Orkney's winter weather and also its ability to provide adequate cover for the wide area it will be required to serve, and believes that, if the Kirkwall-based Islander aircraft is not retained as a back-up facility beyond the end of March 2006, Orkney will be left with poorer quality and potentially unsafe air ambulance cover.


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Stewart Stevenson (Banff and Buchan) (SNP): I thank Jim Wallace for the opportunity to talk about flying, which is one of my favourite subjects. I will not disappoint my many fans in the chamber. I will try not to be influenced by the fact that my particular set of flying qualifications would allow me to fly the Britten-Norman Islander but not the EC135, although I have to say that in no sense do I aspire to fly in the conditions that are faced by the expert pilots who provide air ambulance services in Scotland. They do something that few pilots would wish to do, however highly qualified or experienced they are.

I will make one or two points about aircraft and equipment. The issue of icing has been mentioned. It might be of interest to members—or perhaps not—to know that the icing level above ground is 500ft for every degree Celsius by which the ground temperature is above zero. If the ground temperature is 3°C, the freezing level will be 1,500ft. It would be fair to say that in winter in the northern islands, there will be many occasions when the ground temperature is at or close to freezing. That does not automatically mean that there will icing in the air; there has to be cloud as well and it is only in cloud that icing will occur. On that basis alone, the Islander beats the EC135 hands down, although we should not overplay its ability to deal with ice because it can deal with only the lowest of the three categories of ice.

That brings me neatly to one of the things that I would like to bring to the minister's attention. When we went to the market to look for a contract for this service, perhaps we did so without taking the opportunity to look at new technologies and simply bought the technologies that happened to be available. For example, the King Air is a fine aircraft but because it has retractable undercarriages, it is simply unsuitable for landing on beach airstrips such as those that are used by the ambulance service in Mr Morrison's constituency at Northton in Harris, in South Uist and at Solas in North Uist, and of course by the regular commercial services that go into Barra and elsewhere. Virtually every island in Scotland has an airstrip; Arran is the only exception that I can think of at the moment.

If we were being challenging and ambitious—if we wanted to show the world—we would have specified the gold standard and seen to what extent we could achieve it. I suggest that that standard might be a Britten-Norman Islander with a piston diesel engine. Despite how that sounds, that is modern technology that is just coming into use. It is technology that can fly in all conditions. The engine can be started and stopped without any cooling-down time. It can burn any available fuel, so if the aircraft got to an island and was short of fuel, it could use fuel drained from the tank of a car or lorry. That is terrific in the bush-type flying conditions that the aircraft experience.

Mary Scanlon: Will the member take an intervention?

Christine Grahame: I hope that Mary Scanlon is not going to ask a technical question.

Mary Scanlon: No, but I am so bowled over by the member's expertise that I want to ask him whether he has offered that incredible advice to the Scottish Ambulance Service.

Stewart Stevenson: I regret to say that I have not and I suspect that the service would look at the information in a different way. All I am saying is that we should consider the new technologies that are out there and ask what we could do that would best meet our needs; fuelling is one of the issues to consider. At the core of the argument is the real issue, which is where the aircraft is rather than what it is. If the aircraft is in the islands, the cloud base is at 100ft, the ground temperature is 0°C and it is icing at 100ft, the Islander can take off and fly. It cannot land again and it would be forbidden to conduct normal commercial operations under those circumstances. However, it is permitted to—and the pilots are prepared to—operate humanitarian missions under those circumstance. The EC135 cannae do that, and that is the bottom, middle and top of the issue. The issue is where the aircraft is, not what it is, and the aircraft need to be near the patients.


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