Britain’s last Bolkow helicopter air ambulance prepares to fly into history
For nearly 30 years the feisty little Bolkow 105 helicopter has proved a mainstay in the delivery of air ambulance services across the UK and beyond.
But now the aircraft that pioneered helicopter air ambulance services in Scotland with Bond Air Services is preparing to fly into history.
The country is poised to say farewell to the very last Bolkow in British HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) as Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) prepares to upgrade its aircraft.
Scotland’s only air ambulance helicopter charity will take delivery of a Eurocopter 135 later this year – operated and maintained by Bond Air Services.
But during National Air Ambulance Week (September 21-27), several pioneers of the air ambulance service in Scotland who served on the early Bolkows visited SCAA’s Perth Airport base to see the last one in action before it finally bows out.
The German manufactured Bolkow BO 105 first flew emergency missions in Scotland in April 1989 when the Scottish Ambulance Service launched air ambulance trials out of Dundee in conjunction with Bond Helicopters and British Telecom.
Nearly a year later, the experimental base was moved to Inverness and in 1993 the Scottish Ambulance Service awarded Bond the contract to supply two Bolkow 105 helicopters to work as air ambulances out of Prestwick and Inverness.
The two workhorses proved the cornerstone of the Scottish service for the next eight years until SAS upgraded to Eurocopter 135s in 2001 and latterly to Eurocopter 145s - still operating out of Glasgow and Inverness.
It was 2013 before a Bolkow 105 returned to frontline service in Scotland with the launch of Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA). The aircraft proved the ideal entry level servant and would go on to respond to well over 700 emergency callouts and fly the equivalent of nearly three times round the world from its base at Perth Airport before SCAA also opted to trade up to an EC 135 later this year - the new aircraft scheduled to come on line in November.
Former Bolkow paramedics Ian Golding, Gerry Kelly and Robert Devine, who all served on the very first helicopter air ambulance trialled in Scotland in 1989, have fond memories of their “little budgie”.
“It was compact - but it was effective,” they recalled. “Space was at a premium but there was room for all the kit we needed and a corner or two for the crew and a patient.”
“Bolkows were used all over the country on air ambulance duty,” said Ian. “We felt very fortunate and privileged to be involved in Scotland’s first, based in Tayside. It was dead exciting - coming off the land ambulance to fly paramedic aid in a helicopter. The camaraderie was brilliant and we have very fond memories of the old Bolkow.”
“The Bolkow has certainly served HEMS well,” agreed Gerry. “She might have been overtaken by newer aircraft but she can bow out with pride. It will be strange not to see her flying anymore in response to emergency missions across Scotland - she’s served this country well.
“It’s been great to visit SCAA and see the aircraft type again - still working the frontline for those in need in Scotland.”
Robert Devine, still a paramedic in Arbroath, said that the Bolkow had proved the value a helicopter resource could bring to patient care in Scotland.
“Without the Bolkow, we wouldn’t have the service we enjoy in Scotland today,” he said. “Those early trials showed what could be done - they were very exciting days - and it’s great to see the country’s last one ending her service here in Scotland.”
SCAA senior pilot Captain Russell Myles said it would be a day of mixed emotions when they finally say goodbye to the Bolkow in November.
“Many pilots have flown HEMS in a Bolkow over the past few decades in the UK,” he said. “It’s a great little helicopter to fly and ideally suited to many of the demanding situations that air ambulance responses present. She was the best in her day but now she’s been overtaken by a new generation of HEMS aircraft and it’s time to let her go.”
John Pritchard, senior paramedic with SCAA, said the demands of modern medical care meant the Bolkow presented certain challenges and restrictions and had been overtaken by more modern aircraft.
“We will have many memories of our SCAA Bolkow and of the missions flown and the people whose lives we’ve saved and touched over the years. As the paramedics flying in the last ever UK HEMS Bolkow, we feel privileged to have been a part of - and a final chapter to - the amazing, exciting and fulfilling HEMS history of the aircraft.”
SCAA Chief Executive David Craig said the Bolkow 105 had helped establish Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance as a key player in the delivery of emergency services over the past two years.
“The arrival of a new aircraft later this year heralds a whole new era for the charity but we recognise the amazing service the Bolkow has given to us in our life-saving work throughout Scotland since we launched the country’s only charity helicopter air ambulance in 2013.
“Many people in Scotland will have cause to salute the work of the Bolkow - not least all those we have airlifted to hospital - and it will be a poignant day for all when we say our last goodbye in a few weeks’ time.”
Britain’s last HEMS Bolkow 105 (G-CBDS) has had a long and varied history.
Built in Germany in 1985 by Messerschmit-Bolkow-Blohm GmbH of Munich, the ex-demonstrator helicopter G-CBDS was bought by Bond in 1989 and posted to Peterhead where it underwent a significant conversion to make it UK requirement compliant.
It’s first Scottish role was as a Jack Of All Trades, demonstrating the fantastic versatility of the Bolkow as it carried out offshore rig support duties and Northern Lighthouse Board service.
G-CBDS then converted to an air ambulance, working with Cornwall Air Ambulance - the UK’s first dedicated air ambulance service. After several years the aircraft was taken back into Bond’s fleet and it served as a back-up helicopter for the growing number of air ambulance charities emerging throughout England and Wales.
The launch of Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance (SCAA) in 2013 saw G-CBDS return to frontline service with a full-time post with the first and only charity-funded HEMS north of the Border.
On retirement from SCAA, the history making G-CBDS will be sold out of the Bond Air Services fleet, probably ending her days overseas.