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B.C. replacing existing fleet of air ambulance airplanes

Premier says new air ambulances are part of $673M in provincial funding over 10 years
Premier David Eby speaking Friday (June 7, 2024) in Richmond for an update on air ambulances. (B.C. government/YouTube)

The first of B.C.'s new air ambulances are now in service. 

Premier David Eby announced Friday (June 7) that B.C. Emergency Health Services is replacing its existing fleet of fixed-wing aircraft with 12 new Beechcraft King Air 360 CHW air ambulances. Several have been in operation since May 1 and the full new fleet will be operational next fall, he said. B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Leanne Heppell, BCEHS's executive vice president and chief ambulance officer joined Eby among others. 

Eby said the new air ambulances are part of $673 million in provincial funding over 10 years and framed them as part of larger investments in health care generally and rural health care specifically. "We know we've got more work to do, but today's announcement brings us a step closer to delivering the kind of health care system that every British Columbian deserves," he said.  

Nine of the aircraft will fly regularly with three serving as backups. The air ambulances will remain stationed at their current locations: three each in Vancouver and Kelowna, two in Prince George and one in Fort St. John. 

Carson Air is providing the new airplanes, which several new features compared to the previous fleet. They include the more powerful engines and the ability to use gravel runways, so they can land in and take off from B.C.'s remote and rural communities. 

"No matter, where anyone lives, it's absolutely critical that access to care not to be compromised," Dix said. "Planes also have significantly expanded capabilities for specialized care with all 12 airplanes in the B.C. fleet able to carry patients with highly specialized medical needs, including patients requiring life support." 

All planes will also carry improved neo-natal transport incubators; include a medical isolation units for patients with certain infectious diseases; and be easier to load. 

"These (planes) are truly the next generation of air ambulance aircraft and the (Beechcraft King Air 360) is the best choice to ensure safety, patient comfort and better access to health care for the people we see," Kevin Hillier, Carson Air's president, said.

Hillier added that the existing aircraft remain in "very good condition" and will continue to operate during the transition period as the company sources and modifies the planes for service. "Our plan with them in the future is to re-deploy them within our group of companies and they will continue on in their lives as probably air ambulance aircrafts or other charter." 

Founded in 1990, Carson Air is the primary provider of fixed wing airplane services in B.C. and the sole provider of air ambulances in B.C. as of May 1.

Government said it chose Carson Air following an "in-depth evaluation" with BCEHS staff, industry experts, external legal fairness advisers and Provincial Health Services Authority procurement staff.

The province is also in the process of replacing its fleet of six air ambulance helicopters. A seventh helicopter will also be purchased to rotate in the fleet when needed.

In May 2023, a $544-million contract for Parksville-based Ascent Helicopters to supply seven new helicopters for B.C.

The Health Ministry told Black Press Media Friday that the new helicopters will be delivered in spring 2025. When the contract was announced last year, the helicopters were expected to be in operation in fall 2024.

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