Behind the Scenes

Mark on phonePilots, paramedics, doctors and patients are probably the key players that come to mind when you think of an air ambulance flight. But on the ground, another key player, the Flight Coordinator, is orchestrating events to make the flight happen. During weekday hours, Bojelo Marari, fills the role of Flight Coordinator for FMS air ambulance flights. During non-office hours, Mark Spicer and the pilots on call take over.

At three o’clock Sunday afternoon, the Maun hospital called requesting an air ambulance flight. Roger Weaver and Ryan Cole flew to Maun with the paramedics and transferred a premature baby to Francistown. Shortly before ten o’clock Sunday night, Roger notified Mark, who was "flight-following", that they were back on the ground in Gaborone. They said good night, and Roger went home to bed. Mark went to bed, too. At 11:44, his phone rang. It was the Kasane Hospital. A man’s face had been smashed badly in a car accident, and his nose was bleeding uncontrollably. The doctor couldn’t get it stopped. “We need a flight to Francistown,” said the doctor.

This flight would require the opening of three airports, since the plane would take off from Gaborone, land in Kasane, and then fly to Francistown. Mark’s first call was to the after-hours number for the aviation fuelers in Gaborone. The man who answered said that he would be at the airport in an hour to fuel the plane. Then, after notifying the paramedics and Roger and Ryan, who were still the pilots on call, Mark started trying to get the airports open. “I tried Kasane Airport first,” said Mark. “They don’t have runway lights, and I knew it would take some time to get someone to set up the emergency lanterns.”

airport at night

In the meantime Mark called the Gaborone Air Traffic Controller to see if he would be willing to turn on the lights there. He said yes. At 12:30 Mark made his first call to the Francistown ATC’s cell phone. Again the phone rang but no one answered. Mark tried two more times and then decided to wait until later. He figured that the most important thing was to get the plane on its way to Kasane. He tried again several times to call the Kasane Airport manager but was unable to reach him. He then called the fire chief back and asked if authorisation from an officer in the Civil Aviation Authority would suffice. The fire chief said yes.

Mark called a CAA officer who said he would authorise the lights. “I called the fire chief and told him I had authorisation,” said Mark, “but then he wanted me to call someone higher up.” Mark called the CAA officer back and got a phone number for someone higher in the chain of command. “When I called this officer and explained the situation,” said Mark, “he said he would authorise the emergency lanterns, and he called the fire chief directly to inform him.” At this point Roger called Mark to say that they were ready to depart Gaborone. Mark confirmed that the Kasane fire chief would have the lights set up and that the senior ATC would be there. Then the plane finally departed at 1:45 a.m.

At 3:45 Mark called the Kasane hospital to tell them to transport the patient to the airport. At that point Mark knew he had to contact Francistown. Before the plane departed from Kasane, Mark needed to know that Francistown would be open. “I found a land line number and got through to the Francistown controller,” said Mark. “He agreed to go to the airport and open it for the flight at 5:30 a.m.”

runway at nightAt 5:35 a.m., Roger called to say that they were on the ground in Francistown and the patient was on his way to the hospital. It had been a long night for the pilots, the paramedics, the patient, and the doctor. It was also a long night for Mark Spicer – and for all the people that he had to awaken. “It takes a bit of courage to make these phone calls late at night,” said Mark. “I don’t like waking people up, and I’m glad I don’t have to do it often. But it is nice to know that when a life or death situation occurs, there are people who will rise to the occasion and help save a person’s life.”