The use of helicopters for medical purposes grew from years of experience in military service. In the Korean Conflict, helicopters were first used to evacuate downed fighter pilots. Small aircraft, carrying only a pilot, would search for and retrieve those involved in air crashes. They would then be flown to a MASH field hospital for treatment. Survival rates for these airmen were greatly enhanced by the rapid transport to a surgical facility.
In the 1960s, the Vietnam conflict showed the value of helicopters once again. The aircraft were larger, which allowed for a greater payload. Military officials placed trained health professionals on board to provide care while the aircraft was en route to the field hospital. Again, survival rates were significantly increased. Military personnel who previously would have lost their lives were saved because of the helicopters and crews.
The military use of helicopters got the attention of civilian hospital administrators who recognized that these aircraft could meet a growing need across the United States. In early 1972, officials in Denver, CO were preparing a bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympic Games. The terrain of the games site was a problem. Road access to the venues was limited and ground transport times to hospitals were prohibitive. A life-threatening accident in those areas could result in tragedy.
Recognizing this problem, Saint Anthony's Hospital in Denver developed a plan to initiate helicopter service to this region. In late 1972, Flight for Life began operations and gained the distinction of being the nation's first hospital-based helicopter service. Denver was not awarded the Olympics, but a life-saving industry was born.
The following eight years saw hospitals across the country build on Denver's success. Major medical centers saw the important role that helicopters could play in the delivery of their services. Reduced transport times to the hospital, expert medical crews and an enhanced community image served to increase the number of helicopters in service. By 1980, twenty-five programs existed.
During the 1980s helicopter EMS expanded rapidly. Hospitals nationwide were exploring or developing their own programs. This resulted in duplication of services in many areas. By late in the decade the development slowed and several programs merged into single entities.
The use of helicopters in West Virginia is rooted firmly with the military. The WV National Guard sent their helicopters around the state during the 1970s to transport patients from local communities to large medical centers. The inherent problem was a lack of dedicated crews on duty. Significant delays resulted from crews being called in from home to respond on missions.
By 1978, the West Virginia State Police began exploring the use of their law enforcement helicopters in an aeromedical role. This philosophy had reaped major benefits for other states, most notably Maryland. The State Police developed a plan to provide this service with two aircraft, the first based near Charleston while the second ship flew from Morgantown.
The program, which was called MedEvac, used pilots provided by the State Police and paramedics from local EMS agencies. The program promised a thirty-minute or less lift-off time and was well received throughout the state. Unfortunately the service was constantly under the watchful eye of legislative cost-cutters. They did not recognize the benefits versus the cost of the service, and West Virginia MedEvac faced an uncertain future each time the Legislature met.
By 1986 government offcials were ready to cut the funding awarded to MedEvac. The impending loss of helicopter service in this mountainous state would have had serious consequences to residents who had grown accustomed to helicopter transport. Officials from West Virginia University Hospitals (WVUH) in Morgantown and Charleston Area Medical Center (CAMC) in Charleston met to devise a plan to provide this essential service. During the summer of 1986, HealthNet was born. HealthNet I was assigned to WVUH while HealthNet II was assigned to CAMC.
Beginning with the National Guard program, Cabell Huntington Hospital constantly received patients by helicopter. This was primarily due to the strong neonatal, high-risk obstetric and pediatric intensive care services that CHH had developed. By 1986 CHH offered burn intensive care and trauma services as well. Patients using these services were transported by HealthNet helicopters as well as aircraft from as far away as Columbus, OH and Louisville, KY.
The administration at CHH recognized that with the advanced services offered, the Huntington area could support an EMS helicopter. Multiple options were explored and after a year of planning, a dream became a reality. HealthNet III, based at Cabell Huntington Hospital, was dedicated to service on July 16, 1987.
As the need for patient transport grew, HealthNet was there. In 2005 an aircraft was placed in Bluefield, West Virginia. This expanded the HealthNet service area well into North Carolina and Tennessee. In 2006 HealthNet's fifth base was established in Portsmouth, Ohio. This base is co-sponsored by MedFlight of Ohio and is the nation's only jointly sponsored air medical helicopter base. In 2008 HealthNet began operating a base in Buckhannon, West Virginia. In 2009 HealthNet partnered with Air Methods - Kentucky to operate a medical helicopter base in Prestonsburg, Kentucky.
HealthNet was the first statewide hospital-based air medical service in the United States. In fact, our operation serves as a model for cost effective, cooperative aeromedical services in a rural environment. The seven helicopters serve West Virginia and significant portions of Kentucky, Ohio, Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, Tennessee and Pennsylvania. Each helicopter base is responsible for providing service in a 150-nautical-mile radius. The strategic base locations improve HealthNet's operational capabilities by reducing response time to emergencies. The helicopters, three Eurocopter EC135s (at CAMC, WVUH, and Buckhannon) and five Eurocopter A-Star B2s (at CHH, Portsmouth, Ohio, Prestonsburg, Kentucky, Bluefield, West Virginia, and system-wide spare aircraft) are jet-powered and cruise at 130 mph. Each is equipped with a full array of aviation equipment. Agencies utilizing HealthNet have grown to rely on our aircraft and crews to respond to their call and make a difference, when minutes matter.