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Reporter’s notebook: Len Gillis recalls an early ride in an air ambulance and its Northern Ontario connection

‘This was an airplane more adept at landing on gravel airstrips in the far north than setting down at Canada's largest airport’
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Len Gillis covers health care in northeastern Ontario, as one of Sudbury.com's LJI reporters. (Heidi Ulrichsen/ Sudbury.com)

There was a discussion on social media recently about the importance of the air ambulance service in Ontario. It is operated by Ornge, a not-for-profit corporation that was formerly known as the Ontario Air Ambulance Corporation. 

Ornge aircraft, crew and medical personnel helped provide COVID-19 vaccines to several remote First Nations communities across the North earlier this winter. 

I remember covering air ambulance stories back in the 1970s just before the Ontario government decided to create and fund a formal air ambulance service, which was primarily done to serve remote areas in Northern Ontario.

One winter afternoon I took a phone call at the regional office of CKSO TV in Timmins. I was offered a ride on a "medevac" flight that would soon be leaving Timmins to bring a patient to Toronto. I was told I could write a story about medevacs in general, but I could not identify the patient. 

I had been waiting for this as some northern leaders were pushing to have a formal air ambulance service created. 

A medevac flight was not an uncommon thing at the time. If you lived in Northern Ontario and needed medical attention in Toronto, arrangements would be made to get you on the next commercial flight out. 

The patient paid. Sometimes, insurance would cover the cost. In urgent cases, it was also known that Texas Gulf Canada, a mining company with a substantial operation at the Kidd Mine, would provide its corporate jet to transport patients to Toronto. 

In the case of this winter medevac, there was an urgent need to get a patient with a brain tumour out to a Toronto hospital. The only aircraft available that afternoon was a de Havilland Twin Otter operated by Austin Airways, which was based in Timmins in those days. (Austin would play a much larger role in the history of Ontario air ambulance in years to come.)

As instructed, I presented myself at the Austin hangar, the largest structure at the Timmins Airport back then. 

In those days, one could walk into an airline hangar and walk around. If the pilots and ground crew knew you, there was no problem. I soon found that a Twin Otter was being prepped for a flight. So I walked over and chatted with the crew. 

I enjoyed this because I was raised in an RCAF (Royal Canadian Air Force) family. As a kid, I spent a few years at the base at RCAF Downsview, which was home to Canada's de Havilland aircraft plant.

As a typical entitled air force brat, I was pleased to hang around the hangars on weekends and after school, where I quickly learned everything a 10-year-old could possibly know about the de Havilland fleet and every other aircraft being flown by the RCAF. 

Back at the Austin hangar, I saw that several rows of seats were removed to accommodate a hospital stretcher. It didn't take long to have the plane ready, pushed outside and fuelled up. 

A land ambulance arrived with a registered nurse, a young woman. Two ramp attendants man-handled the stretcher and placed it on the floor of the plane. This was the only time I was allowed to shoot a photo. 

The patient's head was barely visible. He had a white bandage covering part of his head and face. He was covered in heavy blankets. It was a cold day out there. 

Once inside the plane, the door slammed shut and the pilots began taxiing toward the runway. It was noisy. Inside the plane, there was a strong odour of airplane fuel. It was cold. 

The nurse asked about heat. A member of the air crew apologized, saying there wasn't much heat to be expected. The nurse was bundled in a heavy coat, sitting on a piece of cardboard on the floor next to the patient. She had a heavy kit bag with her that one assumes held a variety of medications.

The plane took off and we were airborne on a three-hour flight to Toronto. 

It was still cold inside the plane. The patient was lying on his side and we could see he was shivering. The air crew guys took off their down-filled parkas and covered the patient. Another blanket was found in the cargo area at the back of the plane. The nurse thanked them. 

Another embarrassing moment occurred some time later. We noticed liquid gathering on the floor beside the stretcher. The patient was urinating. We were not even sure he was awake. The crew gathered up some paper and cardboard to cover the urine.

As the sky darkened, the pilots informed us we would soon be arriving in Toronto. We learned that air traffic control at Pearson Airport was giving us priority clearance. One of the pilots said this is only done in emergency situations. 

The pilots allowed me to stand behind them looking out the forward cockpit window as they made their final approach. It was bizarre, yet somehow thrilling, to see huge jumbo jets and other giant airliners taxiing away from the main runway to make room for our little plane. 

The Twin Otter turboprop came gliding in, almost in slow motion, to set down on the massive runway. This was an airplane more adept at landing on gravel airstrips in the far north than setting down at Canada's largest airport. We taxied away to a general aviation hangar and fuel station. 

Then, the blue and white land ambulance rolled up near the plane, the patient and the nurse transferred to the ambulance and the rest of us got out to grab coffee and visit the men's room.  

The flight home was uneventful, but I had a fresh story about some of the reasons why Ontario could use a formal air ambulance service.

One of the movers and shakers pushing Queen's Park back in those days was Kapuskasing mayor Rene Piche, who was also a member of the Northeastern Ontario Municipal Association (NEOMA). Piche was a vocal advocate for the creation of the air ambulance service and was pleased when Premier Bill David agreed to do it in 1977.

The province purchased several Hughes helicopters known as Bandage One, Two, Three and Four that became early versions of the Ontario Air Ambulance service.

Within two years, Timmins was back in the limelight when Austin Airways stepped up the game with Ontario's first ever jet air ambulance.

I remember the day that the plane arrived in Timmins, fresh from Wichita, Kansas. It was a Cessna Citation business jet, fully loaded and outfitted as a flying critical care unit. There was Rene Piche shaking hands with Austin Airways president Stan Deluce as the jet was presented to the media and public. 

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com, covering health care in Northern Ontario. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the federal government.  




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About the Author: Len Gillis, local journalism initiative reporter

Len Gillis is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter at Sudbury.com covering health care in northeastern Ontario and the COVID-19 pandemic.
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