LEWISTON – A sleek new LifeFlight medical helicopter touched down early Christmas Eve at Central Maine Medical Center.

CMMC and LifeFlight personnel cheered as the new aircraft made a high-speed pass and a precise landing on the helipad. It is the first of two replacements for the medical helicopters at CMMC and Eastern Maine Medical Center on Bangor, and their increased capacity and flight capabilities are coming none too soon.

“As we speak, both of our LifeFlight helicopters are in the air on patient missions,” Tom Judge, executive director of LifeFlight, said on Friday. His remarks underscored the benefits that will come from the new aircraft’s increased capacity and flight capabilities. The replacement helicopters, which represent an investment of $8 million, will let LifeFlight crews move more than one patient at a time or carry additional medical personnel or equipment for newborn, pediatric and cardiac patients.

“Based on our experience of the last six years, we understood that we needed to improve our clinical and operational mission capability,” Judge said. “The new helicopters are essential investments in improving our ability to support patients in our rural communities. While the new aircraft look pretty much the same as the older aircraft, they are the latest generation technology.”

The helicopters are equipped with advanced avionics, including moving maps, weather radar and better performance capabilities that will increase safety margins. A secondary advantage is that new technology will lower operating costs.

With an effective speed of 166 to 170 mph, the new helicopters fly faster and farther on a tank of fuel. In fact, the new helicopters are up to 30 percent faster than their predecessors.

Effective range is very important because LifeFlight covers a huge geographic region. LifeFlight’s Lewiston base, for example, provides backup for the northern part of the state, New Hampshire and Vermont.

Peter Chalke, president of Central Maine Healthcare, said LifeFlight’s team of pilots, flight nurses, flight paramedics and support staff have made a tremendous difference since the service was initiated seven years ago.

“Our medical helicopters are able to quickly deliver critical care capabilities wherever there is a need. Critically ill or injured patients are rapidly transported for definitive care to the skilled and dedicated caregivers at major medical centers in Maine and beyond. There’s no doubt that numerous lives have been saved,” he said.

Dr. Larry Hopperstead, CMMC’s Trauma Center medical director, said, “Severely injured patients who are transported to a trauma center within the golden hour have a much better chance of survival. The LifeFlight helicopters can sometimes save hours and the crews can provide critical care in flight. This is extremely important when saving minutes can mean the difference between life and death.”

LifeFlight of Maine is owned and operated by Central Maine Healthcare in Lewiston and Eastern Maine Healthcare in Bangor, the parent companies of CMMC and EMMC. The two health care systems provided the start-up capital and ongoing support for the service.

Since its first flight in September of 1998, LifeFlight has safely transported more than 3,600 critically ill and injured patients from every hospital and from accident scenes in more than 200 Maine communities.

The LifeFlight Foundation has initiated a capital fund-raising program to support the expansion of the LifeFlight system and the medical helicopters. The second replacement helicopter will be delivered to Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor next week.

In July, LifeFlight will make a transition to an instrument-flight-certified program. A capital improvement bond issue approved by voters in November will help LifeFlight improve infrastructure statewide to support the system, which will increase safety and reliability not only for Maine’s air medical system, but for all aviation in the state.

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