Every weekend, a bunch of people get together in their free-time to fly in helicopters around the country. Tony Bleetman is one of them and he loves it. “You couldn’t pay to have that much fun,” he says.
But it might not be everyone’s idea of a good time. As well as landing in fields and by the side of roads, Bleetman and his Bristol air-ambulance colleagues attend to the injured and dying, flying up to 12 missions during a shift.
Death is almost an everyday occurrence and some accident scenes can be appalling. Bleetman, despite not being paid for this aspect of his work, still looks forward to it.
He says: “People ask why I give my time for free but it’s the best day you could possibly have. You get to hang out with some very interesting people and you get to do some very high impact medical work.”
Bleetman’s day job is as a clinical director in urgent care in Kettering and a consultant in emergency medicine at St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington. But, as a self-confessed adrenaline junkie, he would much rather be in the field somewhere, surrounded by “blood, mud and snot”.
He has written a book, called You Can’t Park Here, about his exploits in the air ambulance — an incident-strewn career which includes landing in a prison yard, destroying a coop-full of chickens when the chopper touched down next to an allotment, rescuing a TV aerial engineer stuck on a roof with a drill bit through his foot, and another man trapped between two vats of molten metal.
In between call-outs there is a lot of waiting around, watching TV — “endless Top Gear re-runs”, he says — which does not hold the same kind of thrill.
Bleetman was brought up in north London in a traditional Jewish household. He went to Church of England schools where he was made painfully aware that as a Jewish child he was in a very small minority.
“I encountered antisemitism but I was also quite obnoxious so I can understand why people didn’t like me. Anyway, one day the class bully said to me: ‘Why don’t you eff off to where you belong’, and I thought to myself that this wasn’t such a bad idea. So I bought a one way ticket to Israel when I was 17.”
It was during his time in Israel that his passions for medicine and aviation were ignited. He began training as a doctor while simultaneously performing his reserve duty in the army during the Lebanon War of 1982 and 1983.
But when he qualified as a doctor, he decided that what he really wanted to do was join the Israel Air Force, and he was admitted into the pilot training scheme. The training went well initially but he ran into some problems as the course progressed.
“I was a 27-year-old doctor training with 18 and 19-year-olds. I had the time of my life there. I was told I was technically gifted, but I was also cocky and poorly disciplined and did not have the attributes to be a professional pilot.”
However, that impulsiveness, or to be more precise, the ability to make quick decisions on his feet was an advantage in his chosen field of emergency medicine. And in 2003, when a doctor-led air ambulance service was set up in the UK, he immediately applied.
Unlike the previous paramedic model, where patients were patched up before being rushed to accident and emergency departments, under the doctor-led model, the hospital is brought to the patient in the field.
Bleetman explains: “There was a visionary doctor called Matthew Wise who put this thing together and I was one of the first doctors he recruited. It was a no-brainer for me. Paramedics have good skills but what they can’t deliver is critical care. We carry out emergency surgery in the field which can mean anaesthesia, opening up chests, cutting off limbs, and many of the functions of a mobile intensive-care unit.”
Bleetman offers to show me gory photos he has from recent jobs. I decline politely. Clearly, he is fine with the sight of blood. He laughs: “If it’s someone else’s blood I am OK with it, but if I cut myself shaving I will faint.”
While rescuing people at the scenes of car crashes is serious business, there have been moments of black humour in the book. Indeed, in the early days of the service there was a feeling of the Wild West about it, with a collection of unpaid volunteer pilots and medics (air ambulance services in the UK are all funded by charity to this day) working without the strict guidelines to which they now conform.
For example, there was the time when, having failed to save the life of a stab victim at a prison, Bleetman and his colleagues were instructed by police to remove all of their clothes to be used as evidence in the ensuing murder inquiry. The thought of flying back to base in their underwear was too much for the flustered medics, who refused the request in the most direct possible way. “We very nearly got arrested,” he recalls.
Landing the helicopter can also be a problem. A few years ago, the Kent air ambulance crashed, killing all on board after it became tangled in power lines. On several occasions Bleetman has had to jump from a hovering helicopter when a suitable landing place could not be found.
Once, when leaping into a field, he realised that he was falling for much longer than he had anticipated. “The crops were growing a lot higher than we thought. I must have fallen more than 20 feet and I was unconscious for a moment or two. Then I had quite a struggle to get back in the helicopter because I’m only five foot four.”
Despite the scrapes, it is a satisfying job. There have been plenty of times when he has delivered critical patients to hospitals so well-stabilised that they have been able to bypass
And he is also happy that the air ambulance service has been expanded to 27 units, two-thirds of which are moving towards to the doctor-led model. As the charities become better established, they are even beginning to pay doctors for their time.
So would he like a full-time job as an air-ambulance doctor? He laughs: “I wouldn’t like it as my day job. I’m too old for it and I don’t think I could stand watching all those Top Gear re-runs.”