Doug Ford announces plan to replace Ornge air ambulance aircraft
By Rob Ferguson Queen’s Park Bureau
Wanted: flying emergency rooms that can land on short gravel runways in Ontario’s far north and make it to major southern hospitals in good time, safely.
Those features top the shopping list as the Ornge air ambulance service replaces its fleet of eight fixed-wing aircraft by 2026 to transport sick and injured patients throughout a province the size of France, Spain and the Netherlands combined.
“Not every plane is designed to do that. We need a workhorse,” Ornge chief executive officer Dr. Homer Tien said Tuesday as the plan was announced by Premier Doug Ford and Health Minister Sylvia Jones.
There are three years of lead time to allow for bids to come in from specialty manufacturers, a purchase contract to be signed, delivery of the planes, and training of pilots, paramedics, crews and mechanics before Ornge’s existing eight Pilatus PC-12 single-engine air ambulances reach their flight limits of 20,000 hours.
“The vast majority of our work is in northern Ontario and supporting the rural and remote communities and Indigenous communities,” added Tien, a former military surgeon.
“We’re flying into these places, often at night with these gravel runways, sometimes in the snow, and the distances are quite substantial. When you go from Thunder Bay to Fort Severn, it’s 1,600 kilometres round trip.”
The air ambulance planes are generally used for longer flights, while the Ornge fleet of 12 Leonardo AW-139 helicopters — the ones seen flying to downtown Toronto hospitals several times daily — are best for patient transfers shorter than 250 km and for things like emergency calls at highway crashes.
One recent trip by an air ambulance plane involved taking a critically ill four-year-old boy from Simcoe, south of Brantford, to Kingston General Hospital for care he could not get at children’s hospitals in Hamilton, London or Toronto because they were full from the surge of respiratory viruses.
Ornge aircraft and land ambulances carry about 21,000 patients a year, about 85 per cent of them by helicopter. Ornge has 50 pilots and almost 200 paramedics. Ornge acquired its Pilatus PC-12 aircraft between 2009 and 2010.
The planes are based in Thunder Bay, Sioux Lookout and Timmins. Other land and airbases are in Toronto, London, Ottawa, Chatham, Sudbury, Kenora, Moosonee and Peterborough.