Estimated reading time 7 minutes, 24 seconds.
Dr. Benjamin Kober is a medical doctor in southern Germany specializing in anesthesiology, intensive care, and emergency medicine. Since 2018, he has worked in helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) for DRF Luftrettung out of Friedrichshafen, Germany, as well as for AP3 Luftrettung — a partnership between DRF Luftrettung, ARA Flugrettung, and Alpine Air Ambulance — from its base in Balzers, Liechtenstein.
The 36-year-old father of three is also a licensed private pilot who flies small single-engine piston aircraft from the Friedrichshafen Airport, and a photographer who shares his love of aviation, HEMS, and coffee on his Instagram, @blood.coffee.kerosene. We caught up with Kober to learn more about his background and role in the air medical industry.
Vertical: How did you become interested in aviation?
Benjamin Kober: Initially I studied medicine with the goal of becoming a surgeon, but later discovered my deep love and enthusiasm for anesthesiology and emergency medicine. My ultimate goal within the field of emergency medicine has always been to be deployed on a helicopter, especially in alpine environment including hoist operations. It took me over eight years to get there since I finished my study of medicine, but it was well worth the wait.
Vertical: What drew you to HEMS versus other jobs?
Benjamin Kober: HEMS is a field where professionals from different environments meet to become even better: HEMS would not be possible without perfect crew coordination between the pilot, HEMS technician/hoist operator and the emergency physician. It’s a very diverse and complex field, where you have to adapt to different environments and circumstances very often, and no day as well as no patient is the same.
The other point that’s important to me is that all professions occupied with HEMS share a deep love and enthusiasm for aviation that I have never experienced in any other field of medicine.
Vertical: What prior training and experience did you have before entering HEMS?
Benjamin Kober: I am a consultant of anesthesiology working in our local hospital in the operating room as well as on the intensive care unit. In addition to that I’m specialized in emergency medicine and intensive care, looking back to seven years of experience in emergency medical services in different counties and countries.
I attended multiple courses in trauma care, interhospital transport and mountain medicine and received a special hoist training before becoming an active crew member with Alpine Air Ambulance/AP3 Luftrettung, who runs the Balzers base for AP3 Luftrettung.
Vertical: What are the main challenges associated with your role, and how do you overcome them?
Benjamin Kober: In HEMS we work with different teams from the ground emergency medical services every day; it’s rather seldom that we meet the same team again. Nevertheless, we all share the same language and profession, so both services know about the special requirements of each other. In the alpine environment we often work together with a mountain rescue team that helps securing the landing spot as well as bringing the patient to us by means of ski or other transport vehicles if we can’t access the patient directly or with the winch.
Often the environmental circumstances in the mountains don’t allow for a longer treatment, so we only do what is absolutely necessary and try to get the patient ready for transport and evacuation as soon as possible. This is definitely a different approach than working in urban areas in ground emergency services.
The Covid pandemic changed our field drastically, as we have to take more precautions as well as have to transport patients to hospitals further away from the scene more often because of the shortage of intensive care beds throughout the region.
Vertical: Describe the interaction between the pilots and medical crew in your operation, especially how you all work together onboard the aircraft.
Benjamin Kober: As doctors we do not belong to the actual flight crew, but take responsibilities in or around the aircraft, like watching the engines during startup sequence, removing ground power if applicable. We are checking the medical equipment within the cabin and taking care for the patient’s safety as well as passengers (e.g. the father or mother when we transport a child).
In addition to that we are constantly scanning the airspace and the landing spot if the medical condition allows so we can draw the pilot’s attention to obstacles, people or other aircraft which might not be in the pilot’s field of view.
If we do hoist operations we give the pilot and the hoist operator visual and/or verbal feedback about the distance from the ground or obstacles which we train for every month and during every active duty.
We always work as a team; every profession is helping the other. We clean the medical equipment together after a mission as well as the aircraft and we take care of each other. We can only reach our best performance if every member of the team is perfectly fit and safe in his operations.
Vertical: What are your future plans within aviation?
Benjamin Kober: I would like to stay in HEMS for much longer, there is so much more to learn and experience. At some point when my kids are growing older (since it requires me to be far away from home more often) I’m also interested in advancing into the field of international repatriation of patients. Further, I would also like to continue my own pilot training with night VFR and other airframes as well as exploring the European airspace. For example, we are currently planning a longer flight tour at our flying club which will last several days, from the south of Germany up to the north and then onwards to the Netherlands. We hope to be able to execute that soon when the travel restrictions from Covid are hopefully not necessary anymore.