How Fast Can the Air Ambulance Fly at Top Speed?

By Steve Hane

  • Overview

    The top speed of an air ambulance depends on the type of aircraft being used. Helicopters are typically used for medical evacuations (MedEvac) from an accident scene and also as transport between hospitals in urban areas. Airplanes can be used to transport patients to hospitals by way of local airports. This article will briefly discuss different air speeds for aircraft commonly used for air ambulance services. Air speeds are commonly referenced in knots (kt), but conversions to miles per hour (mph) and kilometers per hour (km/h) are also provided.
  • Helicopter Air Ambulances

    Helicopters are most commonly associated with air ambulance service. From the Bell 47 models used by the military during the Korean War and popularized in the movie and later TV series "MASH" to the HH-65C Dolphin used by the U.S. Coast Guard, there are a wide range in helicopter types used. The Bell 47G has a piston engine capable of propelling it at a maximum of 91 kt of 105 mph (169 km/h). The HH-65C has twin turbine engines that can produce a maximum speed of 160 knots (kt) or 184 mph (294 km/h). The vast majority of all air ambulances today are turbine powered like the HH-65C. Another popular turbine air ambulance model is the MBB/Kawasaki BK 117 with a top speed of 141 kt or 163 mph (262 km/hr).
  • Airplane Air Ambulances

    Airplane air ambulances are typically used to transport patients between hospitals by way of local airports. Twin engine turboprop planes are commonly used for this purpose, such as the King Air 100 with a top speed of 265 kt or 307mph (491 km/h). Another airplane used as an air ambulance is the single engine turboprop Pilatus PC-12 with a top speed of 294 kt or 339 mph (545 km/h). Generally the turboprop airplanes are significantly faster than the turbine helicopters due to the design differences of helicopters versus airplanes.

  • Top Speed Isn't Everything

    The top speed is only the maximum speed that the manufacturer calculates based on testing. The speed of a particular aircraft can vary depending a wide range of factors. Most importantly the top speeds are not cruise speeds. If these aircraft were run exclusively at their top speed, it would put undo wear on the engine and require more maintenance than normal. However, the top speed is usually only 10 percent more than the cruise speed, the speed at which the aircraft can fly for long periods of time.
  • Top Speed Is Not Ground Speed

    When talking about the top speed or even the cruise speed of an aircraft people are referring to the Knots Indicated Air Speed (KAIS). This is the speed indicated by a probe that measures how fast the air is blowing on it. If there is no wind you can travel at exactly that airspeed, but say you have a 10 kt (11.5 mph) headwind meaning a wind blowing straight at you in your direction of travel, you loose 10 kt of forward airspeed. Just like if you were swimming against a current in a river or walking the opposite direction of a moving sidewalk, it resists your forward velocity. On the reverse if you have a 10 kt tailwind (wind blowing in your direction of travel) then your airspeed is increased by that wind. The difference of a headwind or addition of a tail wind to your indicated airspeed gives you the speed at which the aircraft travels across the ground.
  • Are Airplanes or Helicopters Better?

    It depends on the application. Airplanes and helicopters are both aircraft designed for different tasks. Helicopters are ideal to transport people from areas where you can't get a plane nearby, such as an accident scene, or directly from a hospital. When patients must travel a long distance, for instance more than 100 miles, it may be more practical and cost-effective to use an airplane. Airplanes need a runway to operate but can travel faster than helicopters and at a lower cost due to increased fuel efficiency and lower maintenance cost of airplanes.
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