View of the London Air Ambulance from inside the helipad offices.
After taking a tour of the helipad at Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel, we persuaded Captain Neil Jeffers to describe the job of piloting London's only air ambulance. You can catch a documentary about the hospital and its flying medics at 10.35 tonight on BBC1.
Tell us about your role, your crew and your shifts
I am one of the pilots. There are four of us, two of which are on duty on any one day. We carry a Doctor and a Flight Paramedic and frequently another Doctor/Paramedic in training. We all do 12 hour shifts in the summer months but because we do not attempt landings at night the days are shortened in the winter.
When does the Air Ambulance get called out, in preference to the ground ambulance service?
The LAS (London Ambulance Service) receives around 4000 ‘999’ calls a day. It is the responsibility of the ‘non-flying’ flight paramedic who works in Ambulance Control to select appropriate ‘jobs’. This selection criteria is born from the experience gained from over 20,000 missions in 20 years. The basic concept is to attend the patient that needs the A&E department - to go to them instead of the patient going to A&E.
What's the scariest or most unfeasible place you've had to land?
People are often quite surprised to hear that we don’t land in scary places. We select the closest SAFEST place that we can; if that means landing a long way from scene and it takes the doctors longer to get to the incident it will still be much quicker that driving. Having said that Trafalgar Square or Piccadilly Circus are always interesting.
What's your favourite time of day to be flying over London?
Probably on those Autumn mornings when there is a thin layer of mist over London and the sun is still low.
What's the most spectacular view you've experienced?
Flying wise - probably flying low level over the Croatian coast; rocky islands surrounded by white sand surrounded by turquoise sea and then deep a green sea. [On the air ambulance], flying over a white blanket of cloud but seeing just a few buildings poking up through the mist. Or seeing the results of a coach having run over the back end of a car which subsequently ran in to the back of another car squashing it in to a small 6foot by 4foot triangle. And then seeing the driver of the squashed car released and walk away!
Why do you do this? Are you an adrenaline junkie?
(Yes.) No - flying has always been a passion so to add in the extra dimension of flying in some of the busiest airspace and the challenges of landing in London makes it for me the most rewarding helicopter job. Also the satisfaction of meeting a patient that I had a very small part in potentially saving the life of is what it is all about.
Can you cover for each other in an emergency: i.e. are the pilots trained to give medical help, and are the doctors trained to fly the chopper?
No way! As pilots we are able to help on scene which may mean finding and handing over a piece of equipment if required. Some of the doctors have flown before and some even have pilots licences but the flying we do and the medicine that the doctors do is some of the trickiest so one couldn’t be good at both.
What other buildings in London have helipads?
I understand that there is a helipad on top of the DeBeers building which is used frequently and a helipad on top of Harrods which is not used at all.
Where do you live in London and what do you like about it?
I don’t live in London and what I like about it is the commute - 7 minute drive by car and 12 minute flight by helicopter.
Is there ever a quiet time for you to sit down and have a cup of tea?
Actually more often than you might think. There is always something to do if not ‘on a job’ paperwork etc but we always find time to sit down together and have a morning briefing.
Helicopters aside, what's your preferred mode of transport around town?
Car nowadays. Did used to have a red 25cc Vespa which was perfect if not a bit scary around London.
Have you ever been sick on the tube?
NO. not even after a big night out.
The London Air Ambulance is a charitable organisation and needs public donations to keep flying. To make a donation, and find out about how to volunteer as a fundraiser, visit the air ambulance web site.