HCA gets MAMA a new chopper

Mission Health’s Mountain Area Medical Airlift (MAMA) got a new helicopter earlier this month thanks to parent company HCA Healthcare.

Pictured above is MAMA’s new helicopter landing and taking off from Highlands-Cashiers Hospital.

MAMA provides critical medical air transport throughout 18 counties in western North Carolina, eastern Tennessee, northeast Georgia, and northern South Carolina.

Crew members and Highlands-Cashiers Hospital administrators stand in front of MAMA’s new EC145 helicopter purchased earlier this month to be used for air medical transport. From left are HCH CEO Tom, Neal, Dr. Scott Ramming, and MAMA crew members Pilot Bryan Neal, Medical Air Supervisor John Grindstaff, Paramedic Nicholas Cook, and Nurse Carrie Underwood standing in front of the new MAMA helicopter at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital on Friday.

MAMA’s new helicopter is an upgrade from an Airbus EC135 to an Airbus EC145. The EC145 has more interior space giving nurses and paramedics better access to patients. It also carries more fuel increasing MAMA’s range, more powerful engines for a higher payload capacity, and more sophisticated instruments. 

MAMA’s new EC145 helicopter landing at Highlands-Cashiers Hospital on Friday.

MAMA provides medical air transport services 24/7, 365 days a year. This is the third helicopter in MAMA’s fleet, so a backup is always available when one needs maintenance.

MAMA Air Medical Supervisor John Grindstaff said all aspects of mission safety are improved in the new helicopter.

“The main reason is safety,” said Grindstaff. “We have more sophisticated instruments so we can fly in weather we couldn’t fly in before. It has more power and can carry more fuel, and we have 100% patient access that we didn’t have before because we didn’t have the space. Now we can reach more people and give better patient care. It’s been on our wish list for a while and I sleep better now that we have it.”

MAMA Pilot Bryan Neal gets set for takeoff, buckle up. 

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal said providing medical services at a rural hospital can be challenging, one of the biggest being transporting a critical patient. 

“When a patient needs advanced services for events like accidents requiring a trauma center or a heart attack requiring emergency treatment, timely treatment is critical,” said Neal. “In healthcare, there are several sayings we have such as the ‘golden hour’ with trauma or ‘time is muscle’ for heart attacks. These statements are more than an ad line, they are based upon scientific studies demonstrating the benefit of timely care. The addition of the helicopter to MAMA adds another resource that can support our goal to provide the best care possible.” 

MAMA crew members from left are Nurse Carrie Underwood and Paramedic Nicholas Cook maintaining position outside of the helicopter while the pilot prepares for takeoff on the new Highlands-Cashiers Hospital helipad.

MAMA’s standard crew includes a pilot, nurse, and paramedic. MAMA Pilot Bryan Neal said having more power in the new helicopter comes in handy in the mountains.

“It’s bigger and heavier than the old one, but the first thing I noticed is the power,” said Bryan. “It’s much easier to climb and get over terrain, and all pilots have been in a situation where they’re picking up a heavy patient and don’t know if they’re going to complete the mission without burning off some fuel to lighten the load. I don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

From left are MAMA crew members Paramedic Nicholas Cook and Nurse Carrie Underwood who both say the increased patient access in the new EC145 helicopter is a huge plus.

Bryan added that new helicopter also has an autopilot system that its predecessor does not. Autopilot allows MAMA to carry out missions in bad weather, such as dense fog or hurricane conditions that Bryan said can quickly form in the mountains.

When a patient is on board, MAMA Nurse Carrie Underwood doesn’t think about bad weather, payload capacity, or anything else beyond caring for her patient. She said the increased space is a huge plus in terms of patient access, but it took a little time to get used to the exposed tail rotor.

MAMA Nurse Carrie Underwood advises using caution when standing near the new helicopter’s exposed tail rotor.

“It will be easier to get to the patients in all aspects of their care,” said Underwood. “There’s so much more space in this aircraft. But use caution around that exposed rotor, if you’re over 6’1’, steer clear.”

MAMA’s older helicopter, an EC135, has a covered tail rotor. The newer model, an EC 145, has an exposed tail rotor. Pictured above MAMA lands the older EC135 at Blue Ridge School to medivac a critical patient in March 2020.

MAMA Flight Paramedic Nicholas Cook acts as the navigator on the way to the call, but takes position in the back once a patient is on board.

“Access to the patient from where I sit in the rear-facing seat was limited in the old one,” said Cook. “Now if I need to do an intervention or insert a breathing tube, I have room to do that. And with more fuel we can go farther out into the region and provide access to people we couldn’t normally serve.”

The interior of the new helicopter gives MAMA’s medical crew members 100% patient access to patients.

MAMA has bases at Mission Hospital in Asheville and Angel Medical Center in Franklin. Grindstaff said it takes about an hour and twenty minutes to drive the 68 miles between the two without traffic, but it’s a 25-minute flight. He said when patients are suffering from stroke, STEMI, or trauma; every second counts.

And it’s those critical time-sensitive calls that Tom said having access to medical air transport can save a patient’s life.

“Anyone who has visited Highlands appreciates the remote location,” said Tom. “While the calls for a helicopter transport may not happen every day, it is critical the response is rapid. Having a reliable transport team could not be more important when one of our patients needs care quickly.”

MAMA Paramedic Nicholas Cook takes his position outside of the helicopter and maintains a visual while Pilot Bryan Neal prepares for take off.

He added that HCA has invested $5 million to support improvements to HCH’s infrastructure, add new technology, and support improved patient care. He said these investments and the purchase of a new helicopter not only reflect a commitment to the hospital and the community, but also reflect the strength of HCA.

The EC-145 will be the new MAMA 1 based in Asheville. The current MAMA 1 aircraft, EC-135 will become a backup in the event either of the other two need maintenance. The current MAMA 2, an EC-135 will remain in Franklin. The backup aircraft is housed at the Asheville airport until needed.

MAMA Crew Members from left are Nurse Carrie Underwood, Paramedic Nicholas Cook, Medical Air Supervisor John Grindstaff, and Pilot John Neal standing in front of the new EC145 helicopter.

Article and photos by Brian O’Shea
Follow us on Instagram: @plateaudailynews
Like us on Facebook HERE
Advertise click HERE

2 thoughts on “HCA gets MAMA a new chopper

    • The EC-145 will be the new MAMA 1 based in Asheville. The current MAMA 1 aircraft, EC-135 will become a backup in the event either of the other two need maintenance. The current MAMA 2, an EC-135 will remain in Franklin. The backup aircraft is housed at the Asheville airport until needed.

Leave a Reply