HEMS history

February 14, 2012 by Tim McAdams

Most people remember the TV show MASH. Set during the Korean War, it featured patients being flown into a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) with Bell 47 helicopters. In the beginning of the conflict the helicopters would occasionally pick up wounded soldiers when not busy with other missions. When doctors started noting that the survival rate increased when patients were transported by air, the Army took notice. The military started dedicating helicopters to medevac missions and when the Korean War ended over 22,000 wounded troops were transported by helicopters resulting in a lower mortality rate than previous wars. The Army further developed this concept with the Vietnam War by adding more sophistication, like in-flight medical care. Mortality rates continued falling and during the course of this conflict more than 800,000 wounded soldiers were transported.

Many returning military personnel understand the advantages of transporting trauma patients by helicopter first hand and starting applying these concepts to the civilian world. In 1970, the Maryland State Police Air Unit transported the first trauma patient by helicopter. Two years later the first hospital based helicopter program was launched at St. Anthony’s Hospital in Denver, Colorado.  By 1980, there were roughly 32 hospital based programs flying about 17,000 patients a year.

At this point the HEMS (Helicopter Emergency Medical Service) was a proven concept and the industry began to really organize. Medical interiors started getting more sophisticated and standards, guidelines and training programs for crew members were developed. By 2000, the number of programs had grown to 231 operating over 400 aircraft. Today, there are over 300 air medical programs operating about 900 helicopters.





  • Alan Barnes

    I think it’d be hard to mention helicopter rescue without at least a reference to Robert E. Trimble. In addition to pioneering a lot of what we know today about high altitude/mountain flying, he was rescuing people via helicopter starting in the mid 1950’s.

  • http://archives.pr.erau.edu Melissa Gottwald

    A HEMS pilot project was conducted in Arizona in 1969-1970. Known as Air Medical Evacuation System (AMES), the 9-month project demonstrated the validity of using helicopters for evacuation of accident victims. The Aviation Safety and Security Archives at Embry-Riddle has information on the project: http://archives.pr.erau.edu/focus.html#AMES

  • Charlie Branch

    Reminds me of watching the old Aeronca movie of the pilot landing on the road to pick up a patient, probably from the 1930s or early ’40s… The HU-1 (known later as the UH-1) proved the concept, often under fire.

  • http://mountainridgeheli.com Brett Reeder

    We really appreciate your articles on helicopters! Thanks and keep them coming

  • Ron Resch

    I agree with Brett I look forward to Hover Power every month,my only regret is that there is not more on helo’s.As a helicopter pilot I can say that helo’s are real crowd pleasers and wherever I land I almost always draw a crowd. EVEN from fixed wing pilots.Keep up the good work