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Gov't aims to train new generation of young 'Dr. Helicopter' pilots

With demand increasing for "Dr. Helicopter" aircraft that fly to the scene of accidents or disasters with doctors and nurses on board to provide medical aid on one hand, and fears of a pending shortage of pilots to operate them on the other, the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism is aiming to revise the program's piloting qualifications.

    The shortage of pilots is attributable to the increasing presence of unmanned helicopters, which has meant fewer chances for fledgling pilots to secure the necessary number of pilot hours required in the field, as well as to the large number of veteran pilots who are set to retire.

    A Dr. Helicopter -- or "Dr. Heli," as it is known its abbreviated form -- is based at the Nippon Medical School Chiba Hokusoh Hospital in the city of Inzai, Chiba Prefecture. Staff there received a telephone call one day at the end of October from a fire department hotline service saying that a woman had fallen from a building in the city of Toride, Ibaraki Prefecture.

    A helicopter took off two minutes later, with doctors from the hospital's Department of Emergency and Critical Care Medicine on board. Ten minutes after that, the aircraft arrived at the scene, which was located some 20 kilometers away. With the doctors administering care to the woman while on board, the helicopter arrived back at the hospital around 30 minutes after the initial call had been received.

    Although the woman sustained serious injuries, she is now in the process of recovering. The hospital department's Dr. Takanori Yagi, 45, emphasizes, "It is a huge advantage that we are able to begin treatment right on the scene, instead of waiting for the patient to be brought to the hospital."

    According to the Tokyo-based nonprofit Emergency Medical Network of Helicopter and Hospital, or HEM-Net, the Dr. Heli initiative has its roots in the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake, when road networks were destroyed, preventing the administration of emergency medical services. Learning from this experience, authorities began deliberating the establishment of a Dr. Heli system, with full-fledged operation of flights launched in Shizuoka Prefecture and elsewhere in fiscal 2001.

    A nationwide survey conducted by a Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare research team in 2003 revealed that in comparison with traditional forms of emergency medical services, the rate of successful rescues had increased by at least 30 percent, and the number of patients who were completely reintegrated into society increased 1.5 times due to the program.

    The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism reports that as of April this year, there were a total of 46 Dr. Heli aircraft located across 39 prefectures. The helicopters responded to a total of 2,302 incidents nationwide in fiscal 2002. By fiscal 2014, the figure had increased dramatically to 22,643. Five more helicopters are set to be added in the 2016 fiscal year, and demand for their services are expected to increase.

    Because a high level of technical skill is required in order to pilot and land helicopters at or near incident sites, the All Japan Air Transport and Service Association (AJATS) announced in 2003 that pilots would be subject to requirements including helicopter operation in excess of 2,000 hours, and at least 50 hours' experience flying the same type of aircraft that they would be piloting.

    According to AJATS, however, helicopter operations have declined in spraying pesticides and for other purposes in general, due to the increased use of unmanned aircraft, which has in turn meant fewer opportunities for young pilots to practice flying. Pilots now fly an average of 130 hours yearly, which means meeting AJATS's requirements for pilots would take at least 15 years.

    As of February 2015, there were a total of 148 pilots participating in the Dr. Heli program, including those who also worked other jobs. Two-thirds of these were veteran pilots aged 50 or older, and none of them were under 35. The transport ministry is concerned that there will be a lack of pilots for the initiative after a generation of pilots retires this year, and has consequently set up a liaison committee with the health and labor ministry, under whose jurisdiction the Dr. Heli program's budget lies.

    Meanwhile, since the only existing pilot qualifications are those that have been specified by AJATS, the ministries are preparing to undertake an inquiry next fiscal year regarding the technical piloting skills that are necessary among pilots in order to draw up their own criteria for the first time.

    A representative from the transport ministry commented, "In order to respond to increasing demand for the Dr. Heli program, cultivating young pilots is an urgent matter. As the helicopter industry continues to shrink, we must think of ways for young pilots to gain experience effectively."

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