AUBURN — Officials with LifeFlight’s medical helicopter service Wednesday night presented proposals to make flights across the state safer, including better visibility for pilots and easier access to air traffic controllers.
The discussion at a virtual meeting at the service’s hangar at 49 White Hangar Drive at Auburn-Lewiston Municipal Airport was the second of three. The first took place at Sanford Seacoast Regional Airport on Tuesday and the third at Bangor International Airport on Thursday at 6:30 p.m.
Thomas Judge, LifeFlight Executive Director, and David Burr, Director of Operations, outlined the work to improve safety within the flight infrastructure, with a focus on better visibility for pilots and easier access to air traffic controllers.
The nonprofit’s parent organizations are Northern Light Health and Central Maine Healthcare. LifeFlight aviation services are provided by a subsidiary, LifeFlight Aviation Services.
The new schedules, created in collaboration between LifeFlight, the Maine Department of Transportation, the Maine Department of Public Safety and the Federal Aviation Administration, take into account Maine’s complex topographical and weather characteristics.
Along with Alaska, Maine is one of the most difficult states to pilot in the United States due to the fog created by the Labrador Current, the mountainous terrain, and the rural landscape that makes up more than 60% of the state’s area. It is the second most rural state after Vermont. Pilots often need to be aware of freezing limits and operate below those limits to ensure safety and avoid ice.
The new schedules are designed around the state’s major travel routes, including Route 1, I-295, I-95, Route 3 and Route 9. Helicopter routes must be below fixed-wing altitude.
According to Judge, the most important aspect of setting routes is making them as predictable as possible for air traffic control. The development of a route structure between known points creates predictability through aviation locations monitored in databases by the FAA.
Improved access to weather reports and updated weather monitoring equipment are important aspects of the proposed plan, which would allow pilots to adapt to the changing environment during flight.
Life Flight has added 17 new weather stations across the state, bringing the total to 28 and consequently more stations than the National Weather Service.
In addition, easier access to fuel and helipads is expected to complement the new infrastructure and promote safer travel between hospitals and often inaccessible areas along the coast and in more forested areas inland.
“As this system evolves, we need new ways to be much more precise about what we’re doing,” said Judge.