The Royal Flying Doctor Service will next month receive the first of two King Air 350C Heavy Weight aircraft at its Cairns base in far north Queensland. DEREK ROYAL takes a closer look at the new acquisitions and the relationship between the flying doctors and the King Air, a machine that remains the best in its class.
The Beech King Air 350 is a serious aircraft. No only is it ruggedly handsome and hails from a rich heritage dating back more than 50 years, the aircraft’s robust systems make it one of the most dependable and predictable turbine aeroplanes in the world.
The 350 is the biggest version of the King Air with a cabin nearly three feet longer than the model 200, the most common type of King Air utilised by the flying doctors. The huge 355-cubic foot cabin is the 350’s primary attraction, while a new environmental control system offers improved comfort for medical staff and patients alike.
Reportedly capable of carrying full fuel and full seats under extreme conditions, the 350C’s takeoff performance is impressive considering it’s certified in the commuter category of FAR Part 23 (which requires pilots to have a type rating to fly it), and must observe minimum runway requirements that assure a margin of safety if an engine fails on takeoff. Jet pilots fall into the same stringent category, which says a lot for the 350C’s reliability and technology.
In the cockpit, Rockwell Collins Pro Line 21 avionics, with dual flat-screen primary flight displays (PFD) and central multifunction display (MFD) are standard, along with Collins ECH5000 electronic charts software depicting airport diagrams with aircraft location and approach charts. The Pro Line 21 system includes a single flight management system (FMS) that can be used for all navigation, including the new GPS approaches with vertical guidance. Pilots can dial Com and Nav frequencies using the FMS keyboard or the knobs on the single radio management unit in the panel.
Given the complexity of the cockpit, pilots familiar with the type often reveal that because the avionics and size of the aircraft are so similar to a jet, it’s easy to forget the plane is a turboprop and not a jet.
RFDS Queensland Section has nine regional bases encompassing a fleet of 19 aircraft. With the exception of Longreach each base has an aviation presence. Stretching from Brisbane to Cairns and then out west to places such as Mt Isa and Charleville, this fleet travels over 7.9 million km per year in Queensland alone. Across Australia the RFDS travels more than 28 million km each year, providing health care to 280,000 people in need, a remarkable statistic that equates to one person every two minutes.
Acquiring the 350C ‘heavy’ enables RFDS Queensland Section to provide a combination of life-saving aeromedical emergency retrieval services and inter-hospital patient transport across its vast network of regional bases.
The plane offers a built-in airstair and cargo door and an increased payload of around 635 kg. The large door is perfect for aeromedical activities, as it allows improved access for loading and unloading patients and critical medical equipment required to help patients in need.
The new RFDS 350C’s will undergo a comprehensive medical fit-out before being incorporated into the RFDS fleet, providing patients and crew with comfort and the latest advances in medical technology. The fit-out won’t come cheap. Although unsure of the cost of a 350C fit-out, doing the job on a B200 King Air costs around $1 million per aircraft, offering an insight into the expense involved.
The improved range of the 350C will also provide the RFDS with more flexible transport options, including the ability to fly between Cairns and Brisbane without the need to refuel. This provides a higher level of comfort for patients and produces significant time saving for RFDS teams.
According to RFDS Queensland Section CEO Nino Di Marco, the enhanced payload capability of 1,400 pounds (635 kg) will enable the organisation to better fulfill its patient transport obligations in what is a dynamic and ever-changing aero-medical environment.
“The new additions to our fleet of Beechcraft aircraft will be immensely beneficial to our patients both in terms of their comfort and the timeliness of our operations,” Di Marco says. “The increased flying distance of the King Air 350s will provide our flight operations team with more flexible transport options and provide long-term cost savings, which are extremely important to us as a not-for-profit organisation.” Indeed, a large amount of funding of the aircraft and aeromedical interiors is done via fund raising and public donations.
The relationship between the RFDS and the King Air goes back more than 30 years. Indeed, the organisation has been using King Airs since 1984, when it introduced the B200 model to operational duty. Since then the RFDS King Air fleet has grown to 20 planes, including B200s and the latest version, the 350C.
The introduction of the King Air all those years ago immediately showed the benefits of turbo-prop aircraft. Speed, pressurisation, the ability to fly above turbulence and longer distances, larger cabins and integrated medical fit-outs greatly improved the level of patient care as well as the comfort and safety of both patients and flight crews alike.
Compared with the cramped interiors of the earlier piston aircraft used by the RFDS, the King Air provided much more space for doctors, nurses and patients. They also carried all the required medical equipment to resemble a flying version of an intensive care unit.
The standard King Air installation allows for a two-pilot crew. However, most operators, including the flying doctors, typically operate the aircraft in a single pilot configuration. In addition to the normal aircraft systems, the aircraft is fitted with an additional battery to provide medical power, a medical oxygen and suction system and an inter-communications system between the cockpit and the medical staff in the cabin.
So what’s the King Air like to fly?
In almost nine years with the RFDS, Queensland Section pilot Scott Owens has logged more than 2,300 hours in the King Air and to say he’s a fan of the aircraft is an understatement
“I really enjoy flying the King Air and to be honest I’m a bit of a Beechcraft fan,” Scott tells Aviator. “My early days were spent flying a Bonanza and a Baron at my father’s company, Air Central West. A lot of our customers used to say they were the most luxurious aircraft they had ever flown in, the Mercedes’ of the sky. The King Air B200 is no different. It performs really well with the 1700 horsepower total from two Pratt and Whitney engines, has the ability to climb to 35,000 feet and cruises in the 260 knot range. Pretty impressive given it was first produced commercially more than 40 years ago.”
A remarkable aircraft, the King Air is large enough to load two stretcher patients plus all the life-saving equipment necessary to provide the best care possible. “It also has excellent performance and at the top of that list is the ability to operate on unprepared surfaces,” a critical feature given the rugged bush strips RFDS pilots often use in isolated parts of the country.
“The King Air is beautifully light to fly on the controls and has the performance to meet the challenges of our environment,” Scott adds. “Thanks to some avionics upgrades in the past nine years the autopilot system has become extremely reliable and capable which is a real blessing when the weather is rough and your attention is divided.”
However, despite his obvious fondness for the aircraft, Scott cautions that there’s definitely room for improvement, albeit minor.
“Due to its age, the fuel system in the King Air is quite old technology,” Scott says. “As with any aircraft certified 40 plus years ago it’s not as accurate as some of the new technology of the day. It would be excellent to have a more accurate fuel gauge system in the King Air.”
So who knows, maybe one day Scott will receive the opportunity to take control of one of the service’s brand new 350Cs or even the latest version of the B200, just to see what it’s like to fly a late-model, brand spanking new aeroplane.
But regardless of the machine he flies, old technology, new technology, B200 or 350C, the satisfaction Scott derives from helping people will always be the driving force behind his career, especially when it comes to helping those who have no access to emergency medical care.
“Helping people definitely gives me the most satisfaction about my job,” he says. “Every day we come to work we make a difference to someone’s life, whether it be saving them a 12 hour drive to much needed services, or making a life-saving trip in 15 minutes that would have most likely produced an adverse outcome had they not had access to a plane. In my time operating out west this was more evident for those who are isolated. You build a rapport with the community and when their time of need arrives they have a familiar face in their nurse, pilot and doctor to help them through their ordeal.”
So what are the challenges associated with being an RFDS pilot?
“There are many challenges with any flying position particularly so in the aeromedical environment,” Scott replies. “We have the normal challenges of weather, strip location and choice. However, when you tie that with the needs of a life-threatening case there is a delicate balance to get the job done but to also do it safely. Can Do but Can Do Safely is the aviation department’s motto that stands at the forefront of all our flight decisions.”
When asked to describe the qualities needed to be an RFDS pilot, Scott says: “As with being a pilot of any aircraft you need to have an ability to be disciplined and always be thinking ahead of the aircraft. Great airmanship is paramount. Single Pilot IFR flying is tough going at times so the RFDS pilot needs to be able to multi-task and to always be very self-aware. Not withstanding this, a good aeromedical RFDS pilot also needs to be a team player and able to liaise with his nurse and doctor and have an ever-empathetic demeanour because you’re not just a pilot, you’re a member of a team.”
That’s for sure, a vital team that provides a critical service to people in need. Add an aircraft such as the King Air into the mix and the fit resembles something close to perfection. A relationship of more than 30 years is living proof of that.