It’s faster and more powerful.

It can fly farther, carry more weight and safely operate in rougher weather. There’s more space, better lighting and a guidance system that makes piloting almost a hands-free affair in crucial circumstances. 

The Agusta 109 SP, tail number N901XM, is LifeFlight’s next-generation helicopter. It’s the kind of machine we all hope we’ll never have to see up close — but if that day should ever come, we’ll be grateful for all of its newer capabilities. 

For the men and women who work on the helicopter in often tense scenarios, the $6.25 million Agusta comes with a whole bunch of improvements over their last machine — which was pretty great itself, in its time. 

LifeFlight pilot Helge Melvaer is clearly pleased with the upgraded helicopter. 

“It might look like the old one,” he says, “but it’s completely different. Everything is new in this machine.” 

The Lewiston-based helicopter is one of two bought as part of a larger project to upgrade and standardize LifeFlight’s frontline fleet of helicopters. They were purchased from Leonardo Helicopters, an Italian manufacturer. 

Unlike older models, the new N901LF and N901XM have a 4-axis autopilot, managing pitch, roll, yaw and power, where the older machines had only a 3-axis autopilot that excluded power control. The new helicopter also features the ability to receive vertical guidance from GPS, which allows the aircraft to operate low-level precision instrument flight routes. This means LifeFlight can answer more calls for help, transporting hundreds of additional patients every year. 

“The computers are so advanced that with autopilot and the GPS, it’s able to do a lot of the work for us,” says Melvaer, a pilot with LifeFlight since 2016. “It makes our jobs a whole lot easier.” 

The N901XM has a maximum cruising speed of up to 150 knots, which is around 173 mph. That’s 15 knots (or around 17 mph) faster than the old machine in most conditions. For perspective, that means that round trips between Bangor and Presque Isle, or between Lewiston and Boston, will be around 15 minutes quicker with the new helicopter.

It can maneuver in clouds using specially designed helicopter routes currently under development and it will be able to fly at lower altitudes.

“The recurring theme with the new aircraft and all the upgraded avionics is safety and reliability,” according to a LifeFlight fact sheet. “The aircraft allows us to fly more missions and care for more patients.”

It has a fully digital glass cockpit along with moving maps, weather radar, and terrain and traffic avoidance systems. Everything is digital on board the new machine, whereas the old machine featured half-analog technology.

All of these improvements mean one thing in the minds of those who work on the helicopter: quicker response times, which means better outcomes for the wounded. 

“We can land on the side of the road and provide instant critical care,” says LifeFlight paramedic Cameron Linen. “We’re very much a mobile ICU.” 

The control panel of the aircraft is chock full of advanced avionics and other LED displays that have helped with a better and safer flying experience for both pilots and patients. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

The new helicopter has space for four crew members and one patient. The patient area at the back comes with additional space, and to the medics working in that confined area, every extra inch is crucial. 

“It gives us about an extra six inches of space between the crew members,” says flight nurse Josh Gibbs, “so there’s just a little bit more room for us to work and that gives us better access to the patient.” The extra inches also mean more space for in-flight medical procedures, Gibbs says.

The LifeFlight crew says the miniaturization of medical equipment helps with the space issue and allows for new therapies to be performed. With all those factors in play, the LifeFlight medics are able to bring ventilators, invasive cardiac monitoring, multiple infusion medications, pharmaceuticals, blood, a bedside laboratory, ultrasound equipment and other gear right to the patient, wherever he or she may be.

NEW AND IMPROVED EVERYTHING

LifeFlight of Maine operates three helicopters and one airplane from bases in Bangor, Lewiston and Sanford. The service cared for more than 2,200 patients last year and has transported more than 30,000 patients since it was launched in 1998. 

With the new model’s greater capabilities, the LifeFlight crew believes it can get to even more patients in the coming year if called upon to do so. 

For instance, new features will allow N901XM to reach remote locations that might have been inaccessible with the older helicopter. And once the pilot is out there, navigating to the ground will be a whole lot easier thanks to “hover mode,” a key component of the autopilot system that keeps the helicopter somewhat stationary in the air while the pilot scans for obstacles. 

“It’s really handy when he needs to look around for obstructions — wires and that kind of thing,” says Aviation Systems Coordinator Josh Dickson, who is also a flight medic. “He can have the helicopter just sit right there (in the air) while he’s surveying the site. If he’s putting

it down on a logging road somewhere and he needs to keep eyes out and make sure it’s not going to bump anything, that assistance is great to have.” 

The communication system is likewise improved, to the extent where it starts to sound like science fiction. 

Additional hi-tech features, for instance, “create the platform for ‘connected’ helicopters to facilitate remote diagnostic decision-making,” according to LifeFlight Communications Director Melissa Arndt, “and establish an infrastructure to support future medical equipment and treatments.” 

The GPS system on the N901XM is likewise more advanced than its predecessor, guiding the pilot to where they need to go with almost spooky precision. 

“The first generation of GPS would get you to a hospital,” Dickson said. “This one will get you to a parking space. It’s super accurate.” 

The N901XM went into service in March. Funding for the new helicopters was managed through more than 6,000 donors, including several large gifts from individuals and foundations. 

LifeFlight itself has been in service since 1998. The last time a new helicopter set down on the LifeFlight landing pad in Lewiston was in 2004 when the company paid $8 million for two of the machines. 

Over the past 16 plus years, that helicopter put in more than 10,000 hours of service,

“These things fly a lot of hours,” said Dickson. “They fly all over the state of Maine. We’re doing a lot of takeoffs and landings, so that’s a lot of cycles on the helicopter.” 

 

 


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