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Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex marks 30 years in the air

When the air ambulance takes to the skies en route to an emergency, it carries so much clout in the county's airspace, even the monarch would be told to get out of its way. In fact, she has.

"We have what is known as an alpha call sign above Kent," explains Leigh Curtis, executive director of service delivery at the Air Ambulance Kent Surrey Sussex (AAKSS), "only us and the police have it and it means everything moves out of our way. And I mean everything.

The air ambulance in action (24183153)
The air ambulance in action (24183153)

"Air traffic is suspended in and out of Gatwick and Heathrow to let us through; we've had the Queen routed out of our way; and even the Red Arrows had to suspend a demonstration so we can plough through the middle of it."

And if you or a loved one are the target of its mission you will be mighty glad.

For it has saved countless lives over the years, attending to some 30,000 missions.

Says the service's chief executive, David Welch: "That's what we're about, keeping families together and allowing people to see their grandchildren."

It was almost exactly 30 years ago the South East Thames Air Ambulance, as it was known then, took off to its first emergency call - flying to the aid of 16-year-old Michelle Leather and her brother, who lived in Tenterden, transporting her to the William Harvey Hospital in Ashford for life-saving treatment after they were involved in a car crash.

The crew in 2000 with founder Kate Chivers
The crew in 2000 with founder Kate Chivers

Founded by Kate Chivers, she was inspired by similar services then recently launched in London and Cornwall. She could see the huge benefits it could bring to saving lives across the county.

Starting life with just one helicopter, it initially didn't fly at night and operated for just five days a week.

Today it is the first and only 24-hour helicopter rescue service in the country. It has a fleet of three state-of-the-art aircraft capable of transporting its highly trained team delivering essential life-saving treatment while hurtling above our homes.

Its ability to treat and deliver those patients in such a precarious position to hospital in a fraction of the time it takes by road (Rochester to Dover, for example, is covered in less than 11 minutes) remains as crucial today as it has since that first call-out.

"About a third of what we do are traffic crashes but we do virtually every kind of incident you can imagine," explains Leigh Curtis.

Charity director Leigh Curtis reflects on Kent Air Ambulance's 30-year history

"Most of our patients are standing on a precipice, they have reached the limit of what is humanely survivable and they are looking over it. Our job is to pull them back.

"Around two-thirds of our patients have multi-system trauma or life-threatening head injuries.

"We take two-thirds of our patients to major trauma centres.

"And, unfortunately, in the south east we are not well served by these.

A night landing at King's College Hospital in London (24183143)
A night landing at King's College Hospital in London (24183143)

"If you have a major illness or critical injury in Kent your destination is King’s College Hospital in London.

"But being able to move people, walking on that precipice of what is survivable, large distances quickly is fundamental in aiding someone's survival."

First sited at Rochester Airport, it spent many years at its base in Marden, near Tonbridge, before only recently returning to Rochester where it is now housed in new offices overlooking the airfield. The operational base is in Redhill.

It has been embraced by the Kent community since its first launch - and the gratitude between it and its public is two-way traffic.

It costs some £14million to run the service each year - which is more than £38,000 a day - a remarkable 89% of that figure coming from the community it serves.

The air ambulance first launched in 1989 (24170209)
The air ambulance first launched in 1989 (24170209)

And that community has grown significantly over the years. Once only serving Kent it now covers a vast area of the south east stretching as far west as Hampshire, up to Middlesex and, of course, all of our county. Remarkably, it can reach any part of the region in less than 25 minutes.

But we all benefit from a high-class service. In fact, it is recognised as one of the best in the world, let alone the country, and was recently advising Iceland on its own air ambulance proposals.

Yet raising that money each year is a relentless challenge.

"We couldn’t raise as much as we do without volunteers," says Lynne Harris, executive director of income generation.

She oversees an operation which raises funds through its weekly lottery, fundraising efforts, corporate support, collection boxes and relies heavily on its team of unpaid helpers.

David Welch, the AAKSS' chief executive (24183147)
David Welch, the AAKSS' chief executive (24183147)

"The people who carry out fundraising for us are all heroes,” she adds, “and we're so grateful to those we can't thank - which is those who leave us money in their wills.

"We don't receive huge legacies but lots do it and it all adds up."

Concludes CEO David Welch: "I've only been in post a few months but this is an amazing organisation and this is the best job I've ever had.

"The communities we serve are so fortunate to have this air ambulance service in this part of the world. We are, without a shadow of a doubt, one of the world's leading air ambulance services.

"And that's how we're regarded on an international platform by other air ambulance operators.

"It's our 30th anniversary and in that time we've treated over 30,000 missions.

"We're constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can do to make sure we deliver the best care and achieve the best outcomes for our patients."

And the county is very grateful.

The air ambulance in numbers:

4.7million - Number of people living in the area it covers

£14m - Annual running costs

2,500 - Number of patients helped in 2018

7,390 km² - Area covered by AAKSS

£304,000 - Amount raised by collection boxes

3 - Number of helicopters operated

4 – Crew size for each mission


Sunday, July 26, 1998 is a day no-one involved in the air ambulance will forget.

It had been a hot summer’s afternoon and the helicopter had been touring the county to raise awareness of its service - swooping, for example, over revellers at the Whitstable Oyster Festival.

Yet just hours later, as it returned to Rochester Airport from a mission, disaster struck.

Wreckage from the crash of the air ambulance in 1998
Wreckage from the crash of the air ambulance in 1998

As it flew over woodland near Blue Bell Hill it lost height and hit overhead power cables.

Witnesses reported seeing it plummet and explode into a ball of flames as it crashed into the ground.

Pilot Graham Budden and paramedics Mark Darby and Tony Richardson, who dedicated their lives to saving others, died instantly.

A memorial plaque close to the scene of the crash was erected and acts as a lasting reminder of the trio.

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