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Big Interview: New chief at London’s Air Ambulance wants to fly round the clock

PUBLISHED: 13:50 02 February 2013 | UPDATED: 08:12 03 February 2013

CEO of London's Air Ambulance, Graham Hodgkin, on the helipad at the Royal London Hospital.

CEO of London's Air Ambulance, Graham Hodgkin, on the helipad at the Royal London Hospital.

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The new chief executive for London’s only air ambulance wants it to fly around the clock and recruit more sponsors to raise money for a second helicopter.

CEO of London's Air Ambulance, Graham Hodgkin, on the helipad at the Royal London Hospital.CEO of London's Air Ambulance, Graham Hodgkin, on the helipad at the Royal London Hospital.

Graham Hodgkin inspects the skyline from its helipad on top of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel as he sets out his vision for saving more lives.

He was only appointed in December but already has a clear strategy for where he wants to take London’s Air Ambulance.

As we meet the service’s only helicopter is undergoing its annual maintenance —leaving only fast response cars to send to London’s most serious accidents.

Response times are critical to saving lives within what medics call the ‘golden hour’, immediately after an accident.

CEO of London's Air Ambulance, Graham Hodgkin, on the helipad at the Royal London Hospital.CEO of London's Air Ambulance, Graham Hodgkin, on the helipad at the Royal London Hospital.

With average helicopter flights taking seven minutes compared with car journeys sometimes taking 50 minutes in heavy traffic, the difference a helicopter can make it evident.

Graham said: “Without wanting to scare the public the fact is there is only one helicopter and at other times we’re reliant on the car getting through traffic. There is no doubt another helicopter will literally save lives.”

So far the charity has raised around a quarter of the 2-2.5million needed for a second helicopter. The cost of running a helicopter is about £500,000 a year, including maintenance and fuel consumption.

Only around a quarter of the service is currently funded by NHS, which picks up the wage bill for doctors and paramedics. The operation of the helicopter including maintenance, petrol, pilots and fire crews overseeing the helipad is entirely funded by the charity.

London Air Ambulance helicopterLondon Air Ambulance helicopter

Graham, who was headhunted for the role comes with more than two decades of banking experience and as a former managing director with Deutsche Bank was heavily involved with its corporate social responsibility initiatives.

After Richard Branson’s Virgin terminated its sponsorship with the service Graham’s strategy is to attract more than one major sponsor.

He is therefore planning to relocate the charity’s office in Philpot Street, within the hospital campus, into the City to be closer to potential corporate sponsors.

Graham said: “Whilst Virgin was hugely beneficial for us the service is evolving. We want clients to be proud to carry our brand and the problem was people either thought we were funded by the NHS or that the rest was coming from Virgin or Richard Branson because they had such strong branding. But that actually wasn’t the case and it put off other potentially corporate sponsors, so it’s about creating more sustainable relationships.”

Trauma patient brought to Royal London Hospital by air ambulanceTrauma patient brought to Royal London Hospital by air ambulance

The helicopter is to be re-sprayed and given a make-over to look more like an emergency helicopter and less like an advertising board, he explained.

The charity 25th anniversary next January also presents a marketing opportunity.

Graham said: “We’re committed to carrying four corporate logos on the helicopter tail for a period of time. And sponsors will be able carry our logo on their website.

“But we think we are the brand and that people should be proud to be associated with us and not the other way round.”

The helipad on top of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.The helipad on top of the Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel.

It is the service’s reputation as the world’s leading emergency ambulance that led Graham to give up the independent business consultancy he set up two years ago.

Graham said: “When I joined someone on the medical side told me it’s the best job in the world. And for me it is my dream job.

“I think the medical and aviation side is fascinating and adds a degree of excitement. I’ve learned more in the past six weeks than ever before in my life.”

He admits to growing tired of the banking world and although he declines to reveal his current salary says he has taken more than a 50 per cent cut from the six figure sum he was earning in the City.

The new Chief Executive Officer of the London's Air Ambulance Graham Hodgkin at the top of the helipad in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.The new Chief Executive Officer of the London's Air Ambulance Graham Hodgkin at the top of the helipad in the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.

Graham said: “I had an unbelievable privileged career and without that career I would not here. But it’s taken me in a different direction.

“As my career developed I found myself much more interested in the people side. I ended up consulting in leadership and did coaching and training developments.

“In the last 10 years I’ve very much been involved with corporate social responsibility strategies, supporting charities, so I kind of feel I’ve already made that fundamental cross over into the third sector.

“This role brings all those things together combined with the opportunities to have an impact.”

Canary Wharf seen from the top of the helipad at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.Canary Wharf seen from the top of the helipad at the Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel.

Graham’s immediate focus is on carrying forward plans to raise money for a second helicopter to be on standby when the charity’s only helicopter is out of service or undergoing maintenance.

But his long-term mission is to have two helicopters flying simultaneously both day and night.

At present the helicopter only operates during daylight hours from around 8am in the morning to around 4pm in winter and 8pm in summer.

And for someone with no medical or aviation experience the 46-year-old has certainly done his homework.

London’s Air Ambulance - It’s a Fact:

Its helicopter always carries a trauma doctor and paramedic.

£2million-£2.5m is needed for a second helicopter.

The cost of running a helicopter is around £500,000 a year.

The average emergency flight takes seven minutes.

Thirty-two per cent of missions are carried out by aircraft.

Sixty-eight per cent of missions are carried out by fast response cars.

The busiest postcodes for missions are E1, W1 and SE1.

At night the current helicopter is stored at Denham Airfield.

There are four trauma centres in London.

The Royal London is the only one with a helipad.

Graham said: “Landing at night time is difficult in terms of visibility and the complexity of landing at the site of an accident. We consider the City to be a hostile environment with buildings very close, telegraph poles and wires.

“There are issues around technology and safety, which have to be overcome but it is something we aspire to.”

The 7/7 terrorist attacks showed the difference their team can make.

A conference attended by current and former staff happened to be scheduled on the day enabling them to carry out 26 missions using the helicopter and rapid response cars to the scenes of the bombings.

And Graham says a second helicopter on standby could be mobilised quickly in a major incident.

He said: “Because of the intensive training doctors and paramedics go though we could mobilise them relatively quickly even if not on duty.”

Graham also plans to set up a Training Academy, not necessarily operating from any specific building, but one that brings the expertise of their staff both to other professionals within their sector and the wider community.

He said: “There is a lot of outreach work we can do in schools around preventing the sort of incidents we attend, as a way to engage the younger generation.

“We see a lot of people getting knocked off their bicycles by a lorry or cars. I also think a lot of young people don’t understand how fatal and awful the impact of knife crime can be.”

So determined is he to raise the profile of the charity he plans an abseiling challenge despite admitting to being a bit scared of heights.

But Graham who likes football, skiing and cycling is not adverse to a bit of adventure and will also be doing the London to Britghton Cycle ride for the charity to set an example to others.


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