AeroMed To Park Daily in Big Rapids

August 22, 2008
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BIG RAPIDS — Aero Med is stationing a helicopter in Big Rapids daily, which is expected to cut response times for the air ambulance service.

“We’re just thrilled,” Big Rapids City Manager Steve Sobers said. “It’s a quality of life kind of thing. It’s important not just for Big Rapids and Mecosta County, but the entire area.”

AeroMed Medical Director Ralph Rogers said that for about two weeks, a helicopter and team has been stationed for 12 hours per day at the municipal Roben-Hood Airport, two miles north of Big Rapids. He said response times have been cut for service in northern Michigan.

AeroMed will remain based at the Kent County airport, with one helicopter there even when the second is in Big Rapids. AeroMed received Michigan Department of Community Health permission late last year to activate a second helicopter.

“The big advantage to the city of Big Rapids, other than the quality of life issue, is they buy a lot of fuel,” Sobers added. “As we’re able to sell fuel and make pennies on the sale of fuel, that reduces the tax support for the airport. In the month of August, the airport was within $250 of breaking even.”

The city provides $40,000 per month to support the airport, Sobers said. Several years ago, a second stipend of about the same amount was initiated, with the idea that as the airport’s revenues increase, the stipend could be reduced. Lafferty said this year’s planned stipend of $32,500 will drop to $9,000 thanks to improved airport revenues, he added.

“It’s been a long time coming. We started talking to them over a year ago,” Rogers said. “We’re excited to be up there. So far, it’s going real well. Our response time to those areas has been a lot better, and they’ve been great to work with.”

He said the team in Big Rapids includes a pilot, a physician and a nurse, and from time to time may include someone training in those areas. He said the plan will continue unless a helicopter is in need of repairs or weather prevents flying.

“This is on a trial basis,” Rogers said. “I do believe this will be successful. From the standpoint of us serving patients, it’s a real step forward.”

About two years ago, Big Rapids invested about $125,000 in a 15,000-gallon fuel tank and equipment for self-service sales of Jet A fuel. The airport already sold 100 Low-Lead fuel. But adding Jet A fuel has helped to increase airport use by 15 percent annually, to about 8,000 flights, and attracted new clientele and types of aircraft Roben-Hood hadn’t seen previously, such as jet-fueled helicopters, said airport manager Mike Lafferty of Colt Aviation.

“Both he (Sobers) and myself are a little bit surprised at other changes, subtle changes that were unexpected” as a result of offering Jet A fuel, Lafferty added. “I don’t think it was in my plan that AeroMed would come here. But they wouldn’t, or couldn’t, come here unless there was jet fuel.”

He also said a charter flight service is expected to re-locate to Big Rapids from Traverse City as soon as the airport finishes asphalt work on its 10 new T-hangars, which store private planes indoors in a tail-to-tail fashion.

Last week, Jet A fuel was selling for $5.45 per gallon at Roben-Hood. The $26 landing fee for commercial aircraft and turbo-props is waived for pilots who buy at least 50 gallons of fuel.

Fuel sales, hangar and tie-down rentals are the airport’s major revenue sources, Lafferty said.

After a year, Sobers said, the AeroMed arrangement will be evaluated. If it’s accepted on a permanent basis, construction of hangar and crew space for the air ambulance service might be considered, he said.

“We’re not making any commitments as to what we might do in the future,” Rogers said. “I wouldn’t rule anything out, either.”

“I think we’ve developed a nice feel and nice reputation. I hope that’s part of the reason for the growth,” added Lafferty, a retired Ferris State University professor who lives just a mile away.  “Whatever they say about bad economic times, I’m still selling hot dogs.”

The airport, named after two World War I pilots, occupies 718 acres and has two runways.

An AeroMed helicopter crashed on the helipad on the roof of Spectrum Health Butterworth Hospital on May 29. Pilot Raymond Sampson and Federal Aviation Administration official Willard Elliott suffered injuries in the fiery accident.

According to certificate of need documents filed with the Michigan Department of Community Health, the air ambulance service transported 608 patients in 2006 and expects to serve 902 in 2009.  It was losing $3,370 on each flight, more than $300,000 annually. The loss was expected to drop to $3,178 per case due to increased volumes with a second helicopter.

Spectrum Health has discontinued using the helipad on its roof, and although it plans to reopen it, no date has been set. AeroMed is temporarily landing in a parking lot at 522 Plymouth Ave. NE, and patients are then being transferred to the hospital by ambulance. Immediately after the accident, AeroMed had been landing at Ford Airport and transporting patients by ambulance from there.

AeroMed has purchased a new, state-of the-art medical service helicopter for $10.8 million.

AeroMed serves a 150-mile radius around Grand Rapids. It is one of nine members of the Michigan Association of Air Medical Services.

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