One of the most compelling books about aviation is Tom Wolfe’s iconic The Right Stuff, which tells the story of the development of American jet and rocket planes and the pilots who flew them.

The central tenet of the book is the legendary ‘Right Stuff’ itself; the quality that pilots have that allows them to remain unflappable under conditions that would have the rest of us reaching for the Prozac.

I never expected to encounter such a legendary quality in person but it turns out that it exists by the bucket load – in Kidlington.

AirMed is a fixed wing medical evacuation service based at Oxford Airport. It is the largest company of its kind in the UK and they specialise in the repatriation of individuals who have been taken ill abroad. Included in their operational repertoire is a mandate to bring home civilian contractors working in areas such, as Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya.

Director of business development Jane Topliss said: “We were set up about 30 years ago but, about ten years ago, we decided to move away from cargo and passenger operations and specialise in medical evacuation.

“Considerable investment was required, not least because we have to purchase and certify all the medical equipment.

“But the business is sustainable in that our services are always required. And then of course there is the sense that we are being of value to the community.”

AirMed does not fly into war zones.

Ms Topliss added: “The Government has very good aero medical support for our troops and the military has its own Medevac facilities.”

AirMed’s major business is with the insurance industry, bringing people home who have been taken ill while abroad. The company turned over £8.3m last year.

AirMed employs 14 pilots who are under the control of director of flight operations Richard Napper, and up to 40 medical staff, some of whom are on the payroll while others are contracted in.

The company makes up to three flights a day. On the day I visited they were preparing a Lear Jet to pick up a poorly baby from Rome and take her home to Bristol. But while there was a sense of urgency there was not the slightest hint of panic. The place was humming like a well-oiled machine.

Although AirMed repatriates individuals all over the world they find the proximity of the John Radcliffe hospital extremely helpful.

Ms Topliss said: “It is a world-class teaching hospital and often we find the best place to take our patients is to the JR which is only 20 minutes away in an ambulance.”

Rupert Dent, AirMed’s managing director added: “We have very close relationships with the John Radcliffe and the Oxford Trust and that medical input is absolutely central to what we do.”

Ms Topliss herself is a qualified pilot and so understands the nature of the job from the sharp end.

“We have a wide range of personalities and backgrounds but the one thing they all have in common is they are all extremely professional and highly-trained, which means they can deal with any situation that arises.”

The pilots visit a Lear Jet 35A simulator in Texas twice a year. It is approved for such training by the European Aviation Regulatory Authority and allows them to practice emergency scenarios.

It can reproduce approach, landing and take off conditions in all weathers for any airport in the world. Such diversity is necessary.

“Our pilots are not like large airline pilots who typically fly the same aircraft on well charted routes,” said Ms Topliss.

“They have to be able to fly our Piper Cheyennes or the Lear Jet and land them anywhere they may be needed from Cape Town to Kathmandu to Innsbruck. The last two are particularly challenging because of the complexity and altitude of the surrounding terrain.”

Mark Gurney-Coombs is a good example of an AirMed pilot. A softly-spoken, imperturbable individual, he likes nothing better than to relax at home with his family and his King Charles Spaniel, Bea. But he is often on call.

By nature Mr Gurney-Coombs is not given to self-promotion, but one of the most remarkable stories I have heard about AirMed is the time he flew into Baghdad to pick up a contractor who had lost his hand in a construction accident.

Using his intimate knowledge of the flight path into the airport, he pulled up outside the terminal building, loaded the injured man aboard and was hurtling back out into the desert sky on his way to England within 45 minutes.

Such a rapid turnaround is remarkable. Jane Topliss stresses the pilots are on the ground for as long as necessary to ensure the wellbeing of the patient but points out that due to the situation in Baghdad, sometimes they have less than two hours to work with.

So next time your afternoon is disturbed by the shriek of twin Honeywell/Garrett turbofans, spare a thought for Mark Gurney-Coombs and his colleagues as they race the clock to rescue some poor soul on the other side of the world.

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