Charity air ambulance pilot’s crucial flights

Former military pilot John Stupart has flown helicopters for 17 years.

He now works for Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA), which saves the lives of those who have accidents in Scotland’s most remote places.

What made you decide too take on this role and why is the SCAA so important?

I am enthusiastic about being part of a life-saving crew that makes a huge difference to people all over Scotland. Our role here is to work alongside and add value to the existing services; the government cannot possibly do everything.

Since launching in May 2013 we’ve been called out to 174 time critical emergencies and flown 15,600 miles. We Scots have a reputation for being tight, but I have already seen the amazing response we’ve had and hopefully in the coming years things will really take off (so to speak!). This is the people’s air ambulance, and vital to the future of Scotland.

When that call comes you are usually airborne in three to five minutes, how do you prepare yourself for what might lie ahead in such a very short time?

First thing in the morning we brief for the day so we are prepared for virtually anything. This involves checking the weather, aircraft equipment and any aviation warnings. When the call comes we are off within five minutes – every time. We are constantly assessing issues, whether it is selecting the route to the emergency or picking a landing site.

But we know we can’t hang around because we could make the difference between life and death. In some cases there may be compromise and once we arrive on the scene risk versus need and the patient’s condition will dictate much of what I do as a pilot.

Scotland has some of the fiercest terrain in Europe; how do you cope with flying into tricky mountain situations and does this ever worry you?

In mountainous areas there are usually far more options for me and I can usually find somewhere safe to land. It’s often in urban and built-up areas that more difficult situations arise, particularly where there are wires, antennae and of course buildings and traffic.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

I suppose you could say that this is a real job with tangible results, but actually it is the paramedics that do the good stuff – all the life saving. My role is just to get them there as soon as I can and then get the casualty to hospital rapidly, so that brings huge job satisfaction.

Though I have flown in many parts of the world – the scenery in Switzerland, Italy or Norway is fabulous – nothing beats some of the land and seascapes we fly over here in Scotland. Take the north-west with its mountains and sea – on a good day it’s awesome.

You have a reputation for being extremely cool under pressure – how do you feel about that?

(Laughs) I see it as professional rather than cool. When we are waiting for a call, there is a healthy level of banter and much ritual humiliation between the boys but as soon as that call comes, I, like the others, click into action and just get on with it as coolly as possible.

Racing about achieves nothing. I am ex-military and it was ingrained into my daily training to get on with whatever came along without getting stressed and to be professional throughout.

What happens if the weather is really bad or it is really windy?

I watch the weather all the time and usually know what to expect – in very windy situations it gets bumpy and Alex (paramedic) goes green but we keep it as smooth as possible.

Motorbike accidents are amongst some of the worst incidents you attend. I believe you have a motorbike,
has what you have witnessed put you off?

Well, I have most definitely changed my riding style and slowed down a great deal – arrive alive is the key. I often have to ride past three points where I have picked up bikers and it always makes me think. By the way I have a BMW GS 1200, the same as Ewan MacGregor!

I imagine there must be a great deal of waiting in this job, what do you do then?

I am constantly checking the aircraft and the fuel to make sure it has no sediment or water content, and I spend much time studying the weather. I also make sure I know about any areas to avoid and any navigational warnings. There is always a lot of admin to do as well as personal development and studying the ops manual. Sometimes we watch a film or there is the inevitable banter between us all. But the team are always prepared, waiting for the next call. Then the whole scene alters with that first ring and we snap into action.

  • This feature was originally published in 2014.