Scottish air ambulance service celebrates 90 years of rescue missions

The first air ambulance mission occurred in May 1933 when seriously ill fisherman John McDermid was rescued from the Isle of Islay.

Scottish air ambulance service celebrates 90 years of rescue missions Universal Images Group via Getty Images

Scotland’s air ambulance service is celebrating 90 years of saving lives, having carried out vital rescue missions since George V was on the throne.

The first mission from a Scottish Air Ambulance Service (SAAS) helicopter was on May 14, 1933 when a telegram was received from a local doctor about seriously ill fisherman John McDermid on the Isle of Islay.

He would have been unlikely to survive a sea journey but was instead air lifted to Glasgow for a stomach operation which saved his life.

In 1948 SAAS became publicly funded as part of the newly created national health service.

The air ambulance is now marking nine decades of saving injured Scots from some of the country’s most remote locations.

A team of paramedics, nurses, advanced practitioners and doctors take part in thousands of missions each year.

One of those is paramedic Stephen Lee, who has worked for the air ambulance since 2009.

Mr Lee, who is now an air crew paramedic on the fixed-wing aircraft based at Glasgow Airport, said without the service “remote and rural communities would not have access to the full range of hospital services”.

He added: “Myself and my colleagues provide that vital link in the service chain to ensure the health of the nation.

“Without this link, some remote and rural communities might not be able to continue, as the specialist care is centralised it’s important that we move people to the centres for this care to enable remote and rural communities to grow and continue to function.”

Mr Lee started his career in the Scottish Ambulance Service in 2004 as an ambulance care assistant before becoming a paramedic based in Paisley in 2008.

He said the air ambulance sees him dispatched to anything from a maternity job in the islands to a repatriation to Northern Ireland.

Starting off with just several flights a year, in 2022/23 air ambulance crews attended 4,185 incidents. This was up from 3,924 the year before and 3,076 in 2020/21.

The service has two of its own helicopters, one in Glasgow and one in Inverness, and two fixed-wing aircraft at Glasgow and Aberdeen airports.

As well as the four taxpayer-funded aircraft, the service has the support of two helicopters provided by Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance.

While the first flight took place in May 1933, the air ambulance service only became a recognised public service in 1948 following the creation of the NHS.

Until then, the hire of an ambulance aircraft was a private arrangement between a patient and an airline.

On the first mission, flown by pilot Jimmy Orrell, 90 minutes after leaving Islay Mr McDermid was having life-saving surgery at Glasgow’s Western Infirmary.

It was unlikely the fisherman, who needed a stomach operation urgently, would have survived the long road and sea journey to the city.

Pauline Howie, chief executive of the Scottish Ambulance Service, said the air ambulance was “a vital lifeline for communities across Scotland”.

She added: “Ninety years of caring for patients across Scotland is an amazing milestone.

“I’d like to thank all those air ambulance staff who have served patients over these years, and all those current staff who continue to provide the very best care to patients, often in the most challenging of circumstances.”

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