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Life as an air ambulance pilot for the Great Western Air Ambulance Charity

Captain Alan Petch - A day in the life of an air pilot for the Great Western Air Ambulance Charity

Life as an air ambulance pilot 

Captain Alan Petch is one of Great Western Air Ambulance Charity’s (GWAAC) pilots. Here, you can learn about his career to date and what a typical day looks like with GWAAC. 

Without Captain Alan Petch, the lifesaving skills of GWAAC’s Critical Care Team would not reach a lot of patients in urgent need. Alan, along with Captain Jim Green, provides that vital link and GWAAC is lucky to have him.

Alan, or Petchy as he is known at GWAAC, has only been with the charity for a couple of years but he’s already making waves in terms of the projects he has embarked on and the award he has won.

From the man himself…

I joined GWAAC in November 2020 but have worked for Babcock since March 2018 (Babcock provides charities like GWAAC with emergency medical aircraft). Before I joined GWAAC, I flew for Wales Air Ambulance, operating from their Cardiff Heliport base.

Whilst working in Wales, I also had the opportunity to operate as a Touring Pilot and conducted duties at other Helicopter Emergency Medical Services (HEMS) bases in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. During this period, I was lucky to work with GWAAC; both at Almondsbury and the charity’s old base in Filton. 

Before Babcock, I served in the Fleet Air Arm of the Royal Navy. I flew Sea King and Merlin helicopters and had the opportunity to operate all over the world, both at sea and ashore. I was lucky to have the opportunity to fly in temperate, arctic and desert environments in a wide range of roles, including that of a Search and Rescue Aircraft Commander. 

I’ve moved around a bit: Devon, Cornwall, Somerset, Hampshire, Shropshire, Lincolnshire, Oxfordshire, continental Europe, the Mediterranean, Middle East, Asia, USA… there’s nothing like a little variety! 

But after a very busy time, I decided I wanted to do something different.

I grew up in the Bristol area, so it’s great to be back in the west country serving my local community.  I never dreamt I could work this close to home as a civilian pilot; I even get to ride my bike to work a couple of times a week. 

I enjoy operating close to the Bristol Channel, Severn Valley and Wye Valley. When the weather deteriorates these areas provide options for us to fly below and/or around the weather in order to get to the scene of an incident.

Being a HEMS pilot

I’d say the hardest thing about being a HEMS pilot is judging tight landing sites. The challenge associated with landing site selection is particularly acute in densely populated urban areas and steep rural terrain. The GWAAC operating area includes an abundance of both.

I’ve established a database of potential landing sites throughout the charity’s operating area which is helping to minimise response times, facilitate integration with other emergency service assets and enhance flight safety.

The most challenging landings are reduced visibility landings caused by recirculating dust or snow. They become even more challenging in the dark! You have to set the helicopter up so that it pretty much lands itself. Luckily at GWAAC, we rarely have to land in these conditions.

A definite perk of the job is the views; my favourite is the sunset when flying down the Severn back to Almondsbury (where our airbase is situated) with the two bridges in sight. The sunrise over the foggy Cotswolds is quite cool as well and Bristol by night is a sight to behold The best ground-level view has to be from the deck at the BRI.

A typical day

I start at 07:00 and spend the first half an hour on duty preparing the aircraft and conducting flight planning. This includes a daily inspection of the helicopter, weight and balance calculations, a check of Notices to Airmen and a check of the weather forecast for the day ahead. We brief as a crew at 07:30. 

The rest of the day is filled with HEMS missions, admin and training; both from an aviation and medical aspect. The Critical Care Team will often simulate dealing with a patient. Although I have no medical training, it’s useful for me to participate in ‘Sims’ in order to understand what kit the team may need me to fetch, carry or dig out of bags for them. 

On average we get called to five patients every day and I can get the specialist medical crew to anywhere in our area within 20 minutes. But the crew doesn’t always go by helicopter. We have to decide on a case-by-case basis, whether responding by critical care car would be quicker or safer, which it can be for dense urban areas and in adverse weather conditions.

I decided I wanted to be a pilot when I was nine years old. I got the bug when we did a class project about aeroplanes. The father of one of the other pupils at my school worked for Paramount Airways and arranged an ‘access all areas’ trip to Bristol Airport.

I can’t really imagine not flying. I wouldn’t mind being a lottery winner or an adventurer. But perhaps a role where I can make a difference getting things done is more realistic though.

Find out more about the lifesaving charity that Alan works for and how you can support the incredible work they do, please follow this link:

To donate, please click on this link:

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