Inside an Ambulance Flight in Peak Skiing Season

Follow along for an exclusive look into how SOS International helps injured skiers home

8:30 AM. Aalborg Airport. Denmark. The unmistakable smell of jet fuel lingers in the air like fog on a dark winter's day. It's, cold, grey, wet and in between the odd hissing sound of a jet engine roaring towards the sky, surprisingly quiet.

Inside a black hangar across the airport grounds from the public terminal, a small team is gathering to begin this day's mission. Steen Jørgensen, captain of today's flight, checks the flight plan and gathers the newest weather information whilst first officer, Niels Øjvind Thomaesen, does the final walk-around of the plane. It's Wednesday. It's the winter holidays. And that means one thing. Skiing.

Nurse anaesthetist, Linda Krogsgaard, lets her eyes wander across the papers containing information on the condition of today's patients and confers with medical doctor, Sven Dyring, who completes the crew of four that in an hour will be heading to the Alps to bring home unlucky skiers who have had their holiday cut short.


Laying the puzzle

Less than twenty-four hours prior and 225 km to the southeast at SOS International's Copenhagen alarm centre, a jigsaw puzzle is falling into place. Assistance coordinators have been in ongoing contact with the patients, their next of kin, the local hospitals and conferred with the alarm centre’s contact doctors to establish which patients need to be booked onto ambulance flights.

At 1:30 PM plans are afoot to fly straight from Aalborg to Salzburg and back, but last minute two patients are deemed fit to fly and included on tomorrow's passenger list. A call is made to SOS Intenational's partner, North Flying, asking to change the schedule and make a short stop in Odense to drop them off, offering patients the most efficient route home. Immediately, the North Flying operations contact Odense Airport to ensure landing permits as well as ground crew at the ready. And at 2:15 PM, the all clear is given.

The two final patients have made it on tomorrow's flight. In the nick of time. Now, the alarm centre must ensure transportation for them to the airport in Austria, so they arrive exactly when the plane lands to not keep the other patients undue waiting. And, of course, transport further on when they arrive back in Denmark.

Some patients start crying when they hear us greet them with 'hej' in Danish.
- Linda Krogsgaard, nurse


No ordinary plane

Back in Aalborg as we embark on the plane it quickly becomes clear that this is no ordinary aircraft. Colloquially named The Bone Express, the turbo-prop machine normally boasts 19 seats but on today's flight two stretchers have been fitted as well as three seats with special leg rests in front of them.

As Captain Jørgensen sets the thrust levers to full power and we take to the skies, Linda Krogsgaard and Sven Dyring immediately begin planning what seats to assign which patients. The wife of a stretcher patient, who has suffered a dramatic fracture to his thighbone and undergone surgery, is placed next to him for comfort whilst another patient for safety is placed with her broken shoulder away from the narrow aisle.

After 2 hours and 20 minutes in the air, the Austrian Alps greet us on the horizon, offering their welcome by throwing gusts of wind at the plane. Some turbulence is inevitable, but the pilots have planned to ensure a flight path with minimal vibrations to the plane. After all, broken limbs and the rocking motion of an aircraft fuselage are not a good combination.


A warm welcome aboard

- Some patients start crying when they hear us greet them with hej in Danish, says Linda Krogsgaard as the plane rolls off the runway and onto the Austrian tarmac. If ever there was a nurse fit for this job, it's certainly her. Having spent time with the Danish Defence in both Iraq, Afghanistan, and Kuwait she has helped her fair share of patients home.

- People are always so happy to see us, Sven Dyring adds, whilst Linda points out that the entire operation really is a team effort.

Like beads on a string, ambulances and medical transporters begin arriving at the airport gates. After security checks are performed inside the vehicles, they roll up to the plane and patients are helped onboard. Some, including a man with a badly broken ankle, can hobble on by clinging onto a crew shoulder whilst others like Tommy Jakobsen, who is transported on a stretcher, need a bit more help.

- One, two, three, captain Jørgensen calls out as the entire team with the help of an ambulance driver in a carefully curated motion pushes Jakobsen's stretcher up a special slide the aircraft crew minutes ago fitted to the back of the plane. The entire operation is minutely timed, and, in a flash, Jakobsen has been moved from the ambulance to the back of the plane without ever getting up. And now, the slide is being dismantled and stored in the cargo hold.

As we once again are airborne, a young woman tells her story. She remembers little from the situation but thinks that she slid into bad and icy snow and lost her balance. In an unfortunate turn of events, the tip of her ski stick struck her shoulder as she fell to the ground, sending her to hospital. This was 1.5 hours into her holiday.

Linda Krogsgaard kindly interrupts to measure the young patient's oxygen saturation and pulse, something she does regularly along the way. The reading raises no red flags, and after asking if she needs some analgesics Linda goes on to place a meal tray in front of her to eat.

- On these flights, I am as much a stewardess as I am a nurse, she says.

A regular medical crew onboard this type of flight includes two nurses, but SOS International has chosen to always fly with a doctor to ensure the patients' safety, should things take a turn for the worse. In the back of the plane, medical gear is lashed to the floor, and it is possible to give first aid, anaesthetise, and fit patients with a respirator should it be necessary.

You feel safe when you're with SOS International. You get a swift reply and it's nice people.
- Tommy Jakobsen, patient


In safe and helping hands

In the back of the 1.35 metres high cabin Tommy Jakobsen has just awakened from a much-needed nap on his stretcher. After 30 years of skiing without accidents, one fatal afternoon his left ski slid under the right and down he went immediately feeling a slashing sensation of indescribable pain in his right leg. Unable to be taken down the mountain on a stretcher, he had to be picked up by helicopter and flown to hospital for surgery.

- You feel safe when you're with SOS International, Tommy says as he points to the place in his right leg where two screws have been fitted.

- When you call SOS International, you get a swift reply and it's nice people. We have once before had an accident with a family member, and it all went smoothly. Big compliments, he adds.

In general, people onboard the flight are in good spirits. They are tired but glad to be on their way home now the holiday has been cut short. Out the cockpit window, the lights that line the airstrip in Odense's small airport pierce the grey sky. Soon after touchdown, two patients are helped into airside cars that take them to the airport parking lot where taxis wait to bring them further on. At last.

First Officer Thomaesen bids farewell and from inside the terminal building, you can hear the engines fire up as the flying ambulance thunders down the runway and is reunited with its natural habitat. Onwards and upwards, fulfilling SOS International's purpose. To help people.

 Both the aircraft crew and the named patient have consented to be featured in this story.


Contact us

Are you travelling and in need of acute assistance?

Contact SOS International's alarm centre on +45 7010 5050.

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