Cornwall Air Ambulance

Cornwall Air Ambulance

Trevithick Downs, Newquay, TR8 4DY
Tel: (01637) 889926


Cornwall's rescue service

Cornwall's Air Ambulance, the first helicopter emergency medical service in the United Kingdom, was brought into service on 1st April 1987. The county lends itself ideally to a service of this kind having: A widely scattered resident population, many of whom live in remote farming communities. Only two major accident and emergency hospitals, located some 60 miles apart at Truro and Plymouth. Narrow and winding roads which often become clogged with holiday traffic during the summer months. Isolated beaches, cliff-tops and moorland areas which are frequently inaccessible by road.


Cornwall's Air Ambulance is designed to be:

Dedicated to ambulance duties; unlike the police or military helicopters which are sometimes called into use, the Air Ambulance is equipped, staffed by trained personnel and used for ambulance work only.

Fast in response; the Air Ambulance delivers paramedic help where it is needed very swiftly, then provides fast transport for the patient to hospital. The helicopter is airborne within two minutes of receiving a "999" call and reaches the scene of the emergency on average, in just twelve minutes. Journey time to hospital with the patient averages eleven minutes.

Flexible in deployment; regardless of road conditions, the Air Ambulance can fly at top speed in a direct line to where its services are needed. It can also operate over terrain which would prove impossible for a road vehicle.

Cost effective; despite costing some seven times more to operate in a county like Cornwall, the Air Ambulance can arguably provide the equivalent cover of double that number of conventional ambulance vehicles.

The Aircraft

In 1987 the helicopter was a BOLKOW 105 DBS, an aircraft used extensively in an Air Ambulance capacity throughout the world. It has:
Twin jet engines for safety and to enable night operations if required to do so.
Skid landing gear to cope with all types of terrain.
Facility to carry two stretcher patients.
Unique "clam-shell" doors at the rear to allow easy loading of patients
High set main and tail rotor blades so that patients may be loaded in safety with the engines running.
Compact dimensions and high manoeuvrability allowing it to operate in even the most confined spaces.
All equipment found on any front-line ambulance plus other special items.
Four rotor blade design to ensure a smooth flight. This can prove particularly beneficial for patients suffering head or spinal injuries, as often may be the case in road traffic accidents.
Cruising speed of 140mph. From its base at RAF St. Mawgan the Air Ambulance can cover the entire county in less than 20 minutes and reach the Isles of Scilly in 28 minutes.

In 2001 the helicopter was replaced with the more advanced Eurocopter EC135T (G-KRNW).

In late 2014, the aircraft provider changed from Bond Helicopters to Specialist Aviation Services, through their sub company, Medical Aviation Services. With the change came a change in helicopter and the service now operates the MD Helicopters MD Explorer, with its NOTAR design.

On 1st April 2020 the new Cornwall Air Ambulance AW169 helicopter has gone into active service.

The Aircrew

In addition to the pilot, the Air Ambulance carries two paramedics from the ambulance service who have been trained in giving emergency treatment such as infusion, intubation and de-fibrillation at the scene of the emergency should the need arise. They also undergo instruction in navigation, air safety and air law as part of their training to become an air ambulance crewman. There is a pool of eighteen paramedics who work on a rotation basis on the Cornwall Air Ambulance. Between stints on the helicopter they revert to their more normal duties on the road ambulances around the county.


Cornwall's Air Ambulance is not reserved for use in specially selected types of incidents, but is operated by the West-country Ambulance Service as an integral part of it's resources. Both road and air crews work together to provide the best possible response in the event of an emergency.

Due to the restrictions placed on the single pilot's flying hours, availability of the helicopter was restricted to five days a week for the first two years of operations. Since mid 1989, however, the use of additional pilots to cover the two extra days has meant that the Air Ambulance now offers the public a full seven days cover.

The generous loan of a hangar at RAF St. Mawgan, near Newquay, has given the facility for essential servicing and maintenance to be carried out over night, a task which proved impossible at the original open-air base at Treliske Hospital, Truro. The move to St. Mawgan has also given the Air Ambulance a more centrally located base, leading to even quicker response times in many parts of the county.

The types of missions flown by the Air Ambulance may be categorised as:

1) PRIMARY; where the helicopter lands directly at the scene of the emergency. The patient is then treated and their condition stabilised by the aircrew before they are transported to hospital on board the aircraft. The Air Ambulance is often the only vehicle used to attend on a primary mission.

a) A patient who has initially been attended to by the crew of a road vehicle is subsequently transferred to the Air Ambulance at a convenient rendezvous point and taken to hospital by the helicopter. This not only provides much faster transport for the patient, but has the added advantage of leaving the road ambulance in the area should another emergency arise shortly afterwards.

b) Urgent inter-hospital transfers; As no hospital has all the equipment or skills readily available to treat every kind of injury or illness, the Air Ambulance is sometimes used to transfer patients to a specialist unit at another location as quickly and comfortably as possible.

About 75% of the Air Ambulance's work is on PRIMARY missions.

Costs and Financing

Operational costs for the Cornwall Air Ambulance are 1.6 million pounds each year, all of which has to been paid by means of charitable donations as the helicopter receives no form of "official" funding. The resident population and visitors to Cornwall have now been financing the Air Ambulance solely on the strength of their own efforts for almost a decade by:

All donations received are administered by the First Air Ambulance Service Trust (FAAST) a registered charity established in November 1987 for this purpose.


From an experimental beginning in 1987, Cornwall's Air Ambulance has since proved itself to be an invaluable addition to the counties' emergency resources. Having completed over 7,500 missions to all parts of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly, the now familiar red helicopter has come to represent a symbol, particularly to those living in the more remote areas, that, in times of traumatic accident or sudden serious illness, expert help may be only a matter of minutes away, rather than facing the possibility of a road journey taking up to two hours to the nearest hospital.

The people of Cornwall have taken the Air Ambulance to their hearts and demonstrated in the most tangible way possible their overwhelming belief in it's benefits to them by financing the service at a cost in excess of half a million pounds a year from their own pockets. Taking into account the relatively small head of population and prevalent low average wages in the county, this has been, by any comparison a remarkable achievement. They are justifiable proud of what they now call "OUR" Air Ambulance and, furthermore, it was the FIRST Air Ambulance, showing that, for once, Cornwall, so often looked upon as the poor relation from "out in the sticks", was showing the rest of the country a lead which others are now following.

The speed and flexibility of the helicopter has provided an extra dimension to the ambulance service's resources in the county. Had it not been available when needed it is certain that a number of the 7,500 odd patients it has transported to hospital would not have survived. Almost as important, it has greatly enhanced the quality of life and long-term recovery prospects of a great many others.

The fight for the retention of this vital service has been long, hard and sometimes desperate, but if it has meant the saving of just one life otherwise lost, it will have been worthwhile, for who can put a price on the value of a life saved?

And what of the future? As far as funding is concerned, the Air Ambulance has, for the past ten years enjoyed phenomenal and continuing support from the local community. It's long-term prospects are, however, no more secure today than they were then, for there is no possibility that it will receive any form of "official" funding in the foreseeable future.

(12th January 2015) Two new helicopters to serve the people of Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly have been unveiled before special guests, trustees, staff and volunteers of Cornwall Air Ambulance Trust. The new aircraft – MD902 Explorers – were chosen for their ability to carry more medical equipment, additional expert medical crew, or extra fuel. On board each helicopter is a Night Vision Imaging System (NVIS), which together with special training for the helicopter crew, means the air ambulance can extend flying to 12 hours per day, 365 days of the year. The charity estimates this change could enable the air ambulance to fly up to an extra 50 missions each year.

Cornwall's History       Cornish Lifeboat Stations