features STARS in the Sky

With a new state-of-the-art fleet, STARS is future-ready to tackle the most complicated critical care air missions in Western Canada.
Avatar for Jen Nevans By Jen Nevans | May 3, 2023

Estimated reading time 20 minutes, 37 seconds.

For the past 38 years, STARS has provided critical care across much of Western Canada, carrying out more than 50,000 missions and developing a worldwide reputation for the level of its service. With a staff of about 400, six bases, and a fleet of 10 Airbus H145s, STARS is the rapid link to vital care for thousands of critically injured people each year. 

An Airbus H145, configured with Aerolite’s lightweight interior solution purpose-designed for air medical missions. Mike Reyno Photo

“Our communities — rural and remote — are very invested in what we do,” Andrea Robertson, president and CEO of STARS, told Vertical Valor. She has been at the helm since 2012. “When I’m asked who owns STARS, I say the communities of Western Canada. We are a community service — built by the community for the community. We’re very restricted to critical care, so we fly for life and limb.”

A physician-driven not-for-profit helicopter air ambulance organization, STARS was founded by Dr. Greg Powell in 1985 on a straightforward premise — “one life lost is one too many,” Robertson said.

STARS serves a population scattered across a massive geographical region. On any given mission, a crew could be flying through unpredictable environments — from landing on a side of a mountain, to flying through challenging winter conditions.

The H145 touts low external noise levels, suitable for operations around hospitals and urban areas. Heath Moffatt Photo

“Being a pilot here can be very challenging, but also very rewarding,” said Jason Arthur, director of flight operations and a line pilot. “Our area of operation is so vast. We might be doing a mission up toward Jasper or all the way down to Lethbridge, and each can present very different weather conditions, which are quite challenging at times.”

Over the last 38 years, STARS has used several types of helicopters to fly its crews and patients, initially starting with a fleet of MBB/Kawasaki BK117s, which Robertson refers to as “a workhorse for the organization.”

“But it’s a legacy aircraft now, and for us to be 24/7 available, getting those parts on a legacy aircraft is pretty tough,” she said.

So, in 2018, STARS began a fleet renewal program. After a three-year evaluation to find the best aircraft for the job, the organization landed on the H145 (having also considered the Leonardo AW139). The renewal was a major undertaking and a significant capital investment for the not-for-profit organization. With each aircraft costing more than $15 million, “we needed to be creative,” Robertson said.

STARS’ success over the last 38 years has been based on community partnerships and donations from individuals, organizations, businesses, event partners, and governments.

“I’m amazed by their trust, and we see it as a great privilege,” Robertson said. “That’s why we always have to improve and make sure that we are available for them, and so the investment in the new aircraft fleet was a big part of that.”

STARS received funding for five helicopters from the federal government and two aircraft from the governments of the three provinces in which it operates. The community in which STARS serves donated funds for the remainder of the fleet.

STARS’ team of aircraft maintenance engineers, including Rob Wiese, will be converting five H145 D2s to the latest five-bladed D3 models. Heath Moffatt Photo

New fleet, same lifesaving missions

The H145 provides the range and power for STARS to quickly get to patients, and can handle the harsh environments that Western Canada can present. As the latest member of Airbus’s light twin-engine helicopter family, the H145 D3 adds a new five-bladed rotor system. This increases the useful load of the helicopter by 330 pounds (150 kilograms), simplifies maintenance operations, and improves ride comfort for passengers and crew.

Powered by two Safran Arriel 2E engines with full authority digital engine control (FADEC), the H145 features Airbus’s own Helionix digital avionics suite, increasing safety and reducing pilot workload. Skytrac satcom connectivity and avionics systems allow STARS Emergency Link Center (ELC) to track its fleet of helicopters more efficiently.

“Dispatching is now a digital environment, and so technology is a big piece for us,” said John Griffiths, director of the ELC. “We had a mission the other day where the Grande Prairie base flew into the Yukon, which is almost unheard of. They were closer to Alaska than Grande Prairie, and so Skytrac is the backbone of keeping track of the aircraft, keeping communication with the aircraft, and getting good situational awareness.”

STARS fleet renewal program was a major undertaking and a significant capital investment, with each aircraft costing more than $15 million. Mike Reyno Photo

With an endurance of more than 3.5 hours, the H145 has a range of 351 nautical miles at a cruise speed of 140 knots. The aircraft also touts low external noise levels, suitable for operations around hospitals and urban areas, and a compact body with a protected Fenestron tail rotor system, allowing for safe landing in confined areas near the scene of an emergency.

When he spoke to Vertical Valor, Arthur had just returned from his third back-to-back mission for the day. “Thanks to the level of automation that comes with the H145, it helps greatly when it comes to crew fatigue,” he said. “With the BK117, it would have been far more fatiguing for the entire crew, but with the H145, the automation that comes with the four-axis autopilot makes it less draining on the crew.”

Arthur said the H145 has enough power to fly on a single engine in almost every given flight regime, “which adds a huge safety factor for our mission profiles.”

Thanks to the H145, STARS set a record for its farthest mission last fall. Captain Mike Allard, co-captain Mark Vansickle, flight paramedic Brent McDonald, and flight nurse David Vultaggio from the Grande Prairie, Alberta, base traveled a 952-nautical-mile (1,763-kilometer) return trip to Chee House, British Columbia, to care for a patient — the same distance as flying from Calgary, Alberta, to Los Angeles, California. The mission lasted eight hours and 12 minutes.

For the STARS air medical crew, the back of the helicopter is their intensive care unit. Lyle Aspinall Photo

Building on past experiences

For the STARS air medical crew, the back of the helicopter is their intensive care unit, and how the aircraft is completed is of crucial importance.

“When I reach for a piece of equipment that I need to help my patient, I know exactly where to reach for it,” said flight paramedic Tara Oliver, who was part of the STARS team that decided on the final medical configuration of the new fleet.

The H145 offers the blend of a compact aircraft with equipment close at hand, but also the space needed for the crew to provide critical care, Oliver said. Completed by Airbus Canada in Fort Erie, Ontario, the H145s are configured with Aerolite’s lightweight interior solution purpose-designed for air medical missions. Aerolite medical interiors are “clip-in, clip-out,” allowing STARS to bring in different equipment in the future, “which is the whole design of this aircraft — to make sure that we stay with the times,” Robertson said. “This is a generational investment for us, for our communities, and we want this aircraft around for a long time.”

Aerolite medical interiors are “clip-in, clip-out,” allowing STARS to bring in different equipment in the future. Heath Moffatt Photo

The aircraft is fitted with a non-slip floor with a raised lip, while a single-person, no-lift stretcher allows crews to safely load and unload patients even while they’re hooked to medical equipment. Crews can perform blood work analysis using the onboard iStat machine blood gas analyzer, and, if required, every aircraft carries two units of O-negative blood to perform blood transfusions using IV infusion pumps.

Along with an onboard ultrasound machine, the aircraft also has a C-MAC video laryngoscope for medical crews to see right down to the vocal cords when placing a breathing tube in a patient.

One H145 aircraft in STARS’ fleet is equipped with inflight Wi-Fi and remote monitoring IOT (internet of things) medical devices, allowing remote physicians to come into the back of the aircraft virtually. This places physicians on the scene to support crews on complex cases. “We want to be early adopters of proven medical or aviation technologies,” said Kenny Doleac, chief strategy and development officer at STARS.

STARS serves a population scattered across a massive geographical region. Mike Reyno Photo

With innovation always top of mind, STARS is currently working on remote weather stations. Given the vast and remote areas in which the organization regularly operates, weather reporting can be a challenge, especially in the winter months.

“When we looked at our data, one of the biggest reasons that we decline or are unable to serve missions is because of poor weather,” Doleac said. And while there are times when the weather actually might be poor, he said sometimes the real issue is the lack of accurate weather reporting.

“We’re experimenting with a product that was developed by the U.S. military for use in Afghanistan for rugged remote weather stations that we could potentially locate out there and have a little bit more access to real-time weather data,” he said. 

The H145 helicopters are equipped with a single-person, no-lift stretcher to allow STARS crews to safely load and unload patients even while they’re hooked to medical equipment. Lyle Aspinall Photo

In-house capabilities

STARS received the last of its 10 H145s in October 2022. Five of them are the latest D3 models, making STARS the first North American aviation organization flying the five-bladed aircraft. The other five are four-bladed D2s that will be converted to D3s by STARS’ own team of aircraft maintenance engineers (AMEs). Coinciding with an 800-hour inspection, the conversion process can take up to four months to complete. The first conversion was just completed at its base in Edmonton, Alberta.

“We have all the tooling that we need, and we have assistance from Airbus, so that’s a huge benefit,” said Rob Wiese, an AME at STARS. The team also carries out heavy maintenance and line maintenance in-house. “We use local vendors and avionics companies to help with larger inspections and modifications, but we basically do it all here.”

Each of STARS’ H145s will fly an average of 650 hours a year. Wiese said that the introduction of the H145 has gone relatively well, but it has not been without its challenges.

The H145 has enough power to fly on a single engine in almost every given flight regime. Heath Moffatt Photo

“With the older BK117, it was easier in some ways to troubleshoot issues because it doesn’t have the same level of integration that the H145 has,” he said. “So, it has just been a matter of adapting to the new technologies that come with the H145.”

According to Wiese, the biggest challenge on the maintenance side has been familiarization with the H145. “The manuals, maintenance schedule, tooling, procedures, and troubleshooting — all of it together as a package, it can be a lot,” he said. “As challenging as it is, it’s equally exciting because you’re doing something new every day.”

Oftentimes when STARS completes a mission, the crews are not aware of what the outcome is for the patient. But from time to time, some of those patients turn up at STARS’ doorstep, interested in meeting the crew that helped save their lives.

With a staff of about 400, six bases, and a fleet of 10 Airbus H145s, STARS has carried out more than 50,000 missions over the last 38 years. Heath Moffatt Photo

“That is a pretty awesome day,” Robertson said. “To see someone who’s been in the worst accident or worst medical crisis of their lives walk through the door is pretty satisfying.”

STARS has a special name for the patients it serves. Referred to as VIPs — or “very important patients” — the air medical organization has tallied a large number in its lifetime. These VIPs also become an important part of STARS’ fundraising.

“You’ll see us do a big gala, and the center of the whole gala is someone telling the story of what happened to them, and how important it is for the village of health care to come together to provide care,” Robertson said. “We’re just one piece, but we happen to be a pretty important piece.”

By sharing his story as a STARS VIP, Hank Postma hopes to raise awareness about this lifesaving program. Heath Moffatt Photo

A second chance at life

In the mountains of Alberta, Hank Postma and his wife made a date on the ski hills. The two had planned to spend the day at the Nakiska Ski Resort, taking in the picturesque view of Kananaskis Country.

The trip started out normally, with Postma making his runs down the hill, while his wife remained at the bottom. Postma sent his wife a picture of himself in the glade before making plans to meet for lunch. But soon after starting his next run, Postma realized something was wrong.

“I wasn’t feeling right. I felt I had to get to the bottom,” Postma said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t get to the bottom, and at that point, I couldn’t do anything — I was helpless.”

The then 56-year-old had suffered a heart attack.

“I basically kicked off my skis, and I remember looking at the clock and it was 11:30 a.m. Then I went down to the ground,” he said.

Three people came to his aid, giving him aspirin to chew on. The Nakiska ski patrol was the next to arrive on scene and provided him with oxygen — and then STARS was the next call. Two hours after experiencing his heart attack, Postma was in a hospital room recovering with his family. Without STARS, he acknowledged his heart attack would have been fatal.

“The chain of survival that was in place — from the first responders, to the ski patrol, to the paramedics, and the hand-off to STARS to get me to where I needed to be was amazing,” Postma said. “And [the treatment in] that ‘golden hour’ served me well, because now I’m on my second life. I have a second chance, and I can do a lot of things that I’ve always been able to do.”

After his recovery, Postma wanted to learn more about the organization and visit the STARS hangar to meet the crew that helped save his life.

“It was very nice to share my survival story and show them that I survived,” he said. “It meant a lot to not only the crew that was with me that day, but also the STARS organization.”

By sharing his story as a STARS VIP, Postma hopes to raise awareness about this lifesaving program, which he calls a “vital service, especially for the people that need immediate delivery to the hospital.”

“I’ll always be an advocate for this great organization that gives people second chances at life. They save souls and they save people,” Postma said. 

STARS VIPS are given a ring by the organization, and for Postma, it’s a constant reminder of the day when everything fell into place and Postma got to see another day. “The ring of life,” he refers to it as, “it’s been with me forever, and it’ll stay with me forever.”

For Lorinda Bye, being a STARS VIP is a surreal title. Heath Moffatt Photo

The ‘red angel’ in the sky

What started as a weekend camping trip with friends to celebrate a high school graduation quickly turned into tragedy for Lorinda Bye.

“We were camping in rural Alberta in Rocky Mountain House, and my sister and I went to sleep and woke up to a raging storm outside our tent,” Bye said.

The violent windstorm turned near-fatal when a tree fell on the sisters, breaking Bye’s back. In that split second, the teenager became paralyzed. “After I was rescued, it was clear that I was going downhill quite rapidly, and I needed to get to an urgent care center very quickly,” she said “So that’s when the rural hospital I was at decided to call STARS.”

She refers to STARS as the “red angel in the sky.” Time was of the essence, and when STARS was called to the rescue “things [were] going downhill quite fast,” she said. “If it wasn’t for STARS, I probably wouldn’t be here.”

Motivated to meet the crew that helped save her life that night, Bye made a trip to the STARS hangar in Edmonton, Alberta. “It was a very special moment to meet and thank them in person and tell them all that I’ve been able to do because they saved my life that night,” she said.

For Bye, being a STARS VIP is a surreal title because “you never picture that you’re going to be needing STARS. But now that it’s happened to me, I just want to make sure that if anyone else is in a situation like I was in, that they have the best chance of survival — and the way that you can keep that chance of survival high is if you keep STARS in the sky.”

That’s why Bye continues to encourage donations, raise awareness, and share her story with others — to demonstrate the crucial lifesaving role that STARS plays. “They are a very valuable organization to have in the community, especially when you’re in rural areas and ambulances can’t get to you quite as fast,” she said. “It’s just reassuring to know that there’s a helicopter that can get to you when you need it.”

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