More than a dozen helicopters used for evacuating wounded troops in wartime are on standby to help NHS medics airlift coronavirus patients in the UK and from the Channel Islands.
The COVID Aviation Task Force can be used to transport urgent equipment and personnel anywhere in the country, according to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).
It features aircraft from the Royal Air Force, the Royal Navy’s Fleet Air Arm, and the Army Air Corps.
Crew from three helicopters spent time on Thursday with medics from an air ambulance detachment at an airfield in Hampshire, learning how each other operates and about how to keep safe on the coronavirus frontline.
Commander Chris Knowles is commanding officer of 820 Naval Air Squadron, the helicopter squadron for the Royal Navy’s HMS Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier.
He has experience of flying medical evacuations during the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The commander said his squadron may need to operate their Merlin helicopters differently when flying NHS medics in support of very sick coronavirus patients.
He said: “If we have got a patient that is suffering any sort of respiratory distress, then obviously we will be advised by the medical team.
“But for instance we may not climb to altitude in order to make sure oxygen levels stay stable for the patient.
“We’ll take advice from the medical team on the speed that they want to arrive at the next facility and whether smoothness of flying is a high priority depending on the amount of care they’re providing to the patient at the time.”
It is a learning curve for the medics of the Hampshire and Isle of Wight Air Ambulance team as well.
Flying around in a military helicopter like an RAF Chinook or Puma or a Merlin, there are vibrations, it is noisy and the lighting “can be challenging”, said Dr Simon Hughes, a senior air ambulance doctor, who previously served in the RAF.
“But they have an advantage of speed and of range,” he said.
While still testing out the concept of what the COVID Aviation Task Force, a military helicopter was called into action earlier this week for an airlift with the Hampshire medics, taking a patient to Southampton Hospital.
It is not thought that the person had COVID-19 – the disease caused by coronavirus – but the medics handle each call out as “COVID possible” and take all the necessary precautions in terms of wearing protective gear.
They must also keep as much distance as possible from their military aircrew to limit the chance of infection.
The military helicopters will be tasked with flying to harder-to-reach locations, such as Guernsey and Jersey or the Shetland Islands, and taking patients to better-equipped hospitals.
They have the ability to reach individual homes and also airlift patients between hospitals.
The task force comprises more than a dozen helicopters located out of military bases across the country, on notice to respond in support of any NHS crew when called upon.
The lessons learned by both sides during the practice session will be shared among other colleagues.