A technician works on a LifeFlight helicopter in the organization's Bangor base in July 2022. Credit: Kathleen O'Brien / BDN

LifeFlight of Maine, the state’s only air medical and critical care transport organization, is partnering with the Federal Aviation Administration to create new low-level helicopter flight routes that will help first responders reach and transport patients in need faster and safely, even in dangerous weather.

Once complete, the new routes will allow LifeFlight to fly safely and reliably in poor weather to transport more critically injured and ill patients than before. The FAA will also replicate the project, helping pilots throughout the U.S. reach more patients.

Currently, there has only been one set of flight paths for pilots to follow, but they can fly at two different altitude ranges: below the clouds and in or above the clouds. This project creates entirely new flight paths that, with the advanced technology LifeFlight has, is safe and efficient when pilots have to fly at low altitudes in poor weather.

When LifeFlight was first founded, pilots flew below the clouds because the organization didn’t have the technology necessary to fly in or above the clouds like commercial airplanes do, as that requires air traffic control and navigation technology that helps pilots stay safe when they can’t see the ground, according to Thomas Judge, LifeFlight’s founder and executive director.

Slowly, LifeFlight added that technology to 39 places throughout Maine within two miles of a hospital. This allowed helicopters and airplanes to fly at higher altitudes above hazardous weather and potential obstacles, keeping patients safer.

The issue, however, was that the FAA didn’t have a way to tie all these locations together with routes that are as safe and direct as possible when pilots have to fly at lower altitudes. This project is filling that need, Judge said.

“These new routes, because they’re so precise, let us fly lower,” Judge said. “Before, we had to stay 1,000 feet over the highest point, but now we can fly between the hills rather than over the hills.”

The project began in March 2020 and is expected to take four years in total. LifeFlight’s team has already constructed flight routes through Maine, which somewhat resemble routes 1, I-295, I-95, 3 and 9, “except we’ve lifted them into the air,” Judge said.

Under LifeFlight’s previous flight paths, 8 to 10 percent of patients can’t be transported due to dangerous weather conditions, Judge said, but the new flight routes now in development will reduce that number.

“We set out to have a world-class system for the people of Maine, and this is how we’re doing it,” Judge said. “When someone trusts us with their life, we need to do everything possible to make sure that we have the safest, most reliable aviation system as possible.”

LifeFlight cared for more than 2,300 patients in 2021 — about one patient every four hours — and has transported more than 34,000 patients since it was launched in 1998, according to the organization.

The service’s aircrafts pick up critically injured or ill patients at the site of an incident and bring them to a hospital or transport patients from one hospital to another more capable of treating them, all while caring for them in the process.

Each helicopter, airplane and ground vehicle is designed to be a mobile intensive care unit capable of caring for everyone from premature infants and cardiac and stroke patients to people with complex traumatic injuries and burns.

About 87 percent of LifeFlight’s patients are transported from community hospitals to more advanced hospitals and trauma centers, the organization reported. The remaining 13 percent of patients are transported directly from the scene of an emergency, such as roadsides, woods, mountains and islands.

LifeFlight was selected to help develop the new routes both because LifeFlight’s fleet of aircrafts have the necessary equipment, and Maine’s terrain, weather and relatively vacant airspace is a perfect test site.

“Maine has the most complex aviation weather in the United States other than Alaska because we have temperature extremes and severe weather, lots of woods, coastal mountains and the Labrador Current which, especially during the summer, produces fog on the coast,” Judge said. “We have complex weather, and it changes frequently, and pilots have to adjust to those changes while maintaining the highest level of safety.”

Maine’s airspace also isn’t as congested as some more populated areas in the country, Judge said, giving LifeFlight and the FAA plenty of space to test the new routes without interfering with other flights.

The project is federally funded through the FAA, but LifeFlight had to invest $20 million in helicopters and airplanes with state-of-the-art navigation systems capable of executing the new flight paths, Judge said. LifeFlight is also responsible for training pilots and maintaining its helicopter pads and runways throughout the state.

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Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...