How extreme heat threatens the safety of helicopters and emergency missions

STANFORD, Calif. — The call came in at 2 p.m. Sunday afternoon: A driver suffered a brain injury in a traffic accident and had to be rushed to another hospital.

Chief helicopter pilot Douglas Evans noted that the temperature in Redding, California, where he had to land, was 240 degrees. The tarmac was probably even hotter. In 27 years of flying medical helicopters in California, Evans had never had to cancel a flight because of extreme heat — until now.

Evans and other emergency service pilots are used to the Californian wind, fog and fire smoke in their flight decisions. But extreme heat, such as the intense wave now blanketing the West, affects the way rescue helicopters can perform their missions.

High temperatures, which are increasing due to human-caused climate change, are altering operations in large parts of the state. REACH Air Medical Services, which operates 30 helicopter bases in California, turned away at least two rescue calls over the weekend because of the extreme heat, said Vicky Spediacci, the company’s director of operations. “This is pretty rare. There can be spots, but this was more widespread,” she said.

The company sometimes switches to landing at an airport — where there are fewer obstacles — in warm weather, rather than locally. Landing in a confined space can require more engine power, which is more difficult in high temperatures, said Spediacci, who was a pilot for 40 years.

The heat hampers efforts to transport patients and conduct rescues in the region’s national parks, places that rely on helicopters amid the vast wilderness. When hikers get lost or stranded on remote trails, helicopters are sometimes sent to locate and extract them.

National parks including Joshua Tree and Death Valley are warning visitors that a helicopter may not be able to reach ambitious hikers in the heat, park rangers said. When temperatures soar above 250 degrees — as has already happened this year in parts of California, including Death Valley — medical helicopters often can’t fly.

A helicopter was unable to fly to a rescue in Death Valley this weekend because of the heat, officials said. Six motorcyclists were riding together through the park. One person died from heat exposure, another was “treated for severe heat illness” and taken to a hospital, and four were treated at the scene and released, officials said.

“Due to the high temperatures, emergency medical helicopters were unable to respond as they generally cannot fly safely in temperatures above 120 degrees,” a press release said, noting that it was 128 degrees that day.

Death Valley Park Ranger Nichole Andler said in an interview Tuesday that the person who died was pronounced dead at the scene. Rangers called for a helicopter for the critically injured person, but it refused to come because it was too hot, she said. The injured person was taken by ambulance to a hospital in Pahrump, Nev., and later to Las Vegas, she said. Their condition is unknown.

Andler told The Washington Post earlier this month that the park gets one to three requests a month for air ambulances in the summer to take people to medical care. Sometimes patients are driven by ambulance to higher, cooler altitudes, where a helicopter can take off and land more safely.

“As temperatures rise more often, it becomes more difficult to help,” Andler said.

In Joshua Tree, the Southern California national park known for its dramatic desert landscapes, helicopter rescues can happen three to five times a year, said Anna Marini, a park ranger there. The park saw temperatures soar above 110 degrees all weekend.

A few weeks ago, Marini said the park called in a helicopter for a hiker who was suffering from heat exhaustion off the trail in the middle of the afternoon. The terrain wasn’t flat or easily accessible by vehicle, and it was cool enough to rescue the person by helicopter. But in warmer weather, such rescues might not be possible, she said.

“Intense heat puts a lot more stress on the helicopters,” Marini noted. “That could affect our operations.”

When it’s hot, the air is thin, which means helicopter blades have less air to grab onto. That affects their ability to take off and navigate. Onboard systems can overheat and stop working. Pilots have to make adjustments to weight, gear, and route planning — or they may have to forgo a flight altogether.

When Evans, who works for Stanford Life Flight, Stanford University Hospital’s medical helicopter response program, checked conditions Sunday, he knew the helicopter’s engine, radio and computers were at risk of failure.

“It’s something we need to be more aware of now,” Evans said. “I see things heating up and I expect it’s only going to get worse,” he said.

By 5:30 p.m., a team in Redding, which had also initially rejected the call because of the heat, found it cool enough to transport the patient, said Michael Baulch, the program manager at Stanford Life Flight. They arrived in Stanford around 8 p.m., but had lost crucial hours waiting for cooler weather, he said.

The patient was in stable condition on Tuesday, Baulch said.

The Airbus EC-145 that Stanford flies is prepared for many missions. It can ferry newborn babies between facilities; it can fly patients to more advanced operating rooms across the state while their chests are open during heart surgery; it can blast through rush-hour traffic and arrive at the scene of a car crash long before an ambulance.

“When it’s as hot as it is now, we can’t lift that much weight,” Baulch said. “We have to leave people or equipment behind.”

The 40-year-old unit, which operates as far south as Santa Barbara and as far east as Reno, Nev., conducts about 480 medical transports a year, about 30 percent of which are responses to 911 emergency calls.

Deep in the basement of Stanford’s hospital, a control room of about six employees and at least 20 screens hums around the clock, fielding calls and requests for air medical support. When a call comes in, the control room radios the pilot and asks if the weather is good to fly.

“We don’t tell the pilot any details about the case to avoid prejudice,” Baulch said.

If the flight is approved, the nurses and the pilot on duty don their thick, fire-resistant flight suits and board the helicopter.

During a flight over the Santa Cruz Mountains, the Stanford team was feeling the heat. The temperature was in the 90s, but the helicopter had been sitting in the sun while the crew trained local firefighters and park rangers on how to help the crew in a rescue.

The engine was about as hot as it could safely get, said Evans, the pilot.

The unbreathable maroon suits covered the crew’s legs and arms. The sun shone through the cockpit window on a cloudless Saturday, while the air conditioning vents blew out weak drafts.

The flight lasted only five minutes, but after landing, the crew stripped off their clothes and grabbed chilled water bottles and frozen treats that they keep at the base. For them, journeys can take up to two hours.

“You’re basically just sitting there toasting,” said Kent Cramer, one of the flight nurses, as he sucked on a lime-green popsicle.

Kevin So, another nurse, wheeled out a bulky turquoise contraption the crew affectionately calls “the snork.” The box has a hose attached to it that blows cold air into the cockpit as it sits on the platform.

Sometimes Evans flies to higher altitudes to cool the helicopter, but often taking off means less oxygen for an already distressed patient.

Even below the 122-degree limit, high temperatures affect the team’s operations. “Above 104, we can only operate on the ground for 15 minutes,” Evans said.

Evans knew early in life that he wanted to be a pilot. He started out flying small planes, but says he realized that it was more fun to be able to move sideways and backwards, to hover and fly between trees. Flying to save lives only makes his job more rewarding.

His favorite missions are those that involve obstacles: landing on bridges or beaches, navigating the city by helicopter.

But the heat was an obstacle he didn’t see coming, and he expects it will make his job even harder if he has to turn down more flights.

“It’s the hardest part of the job,” he said, “saying no.”

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