STARS introduces newest helicopter in Saskatoon as air ambulance service starts fleet overhaul

A woman who says paramedics and a pilot with the STARS air ambulance service are to thank for her being alive today joined Premier Scott Moe on Wednesday as among the first to take a flight in the newest helicopter to join Saskatchewan's fleet.

New Airbus H145 the 3rd STARS has bought to replace its older models in the Prairie provinces

STARS staff show a couple the new equipment on the Airbus H145 on Wednesday. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC News)

A woman who says the STARS air ambulance service is to thank for the fact she's alive today was among the first to take a flight in the newest helicopter to join Saskatchewan's fleet on Wednesday.

Six years ago, Swift Current woman Bonnie Fortin was in critical condition after a C-section. STARS paramedics worked to keep her from losing any more blood while the service flew her to Regina for emergency surgery.

"I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for that first ride," Fortin told a crowd at the STARS Saskatoon base for the unveiling ceremony for the new Airbus H145 helicopter.

Long since recovered, Fortin joined in an emotional thank-you to STARS staff at the Wednesday event.

But it was a business case, not an emotional one, that STARS says led to the purchase of the new H145 helicopter, fully equipped as an air ambulance.

Bonnie Fortin, along with Premier Scott Moe, took a fly-over between the new Children's Hospital landing pad to the Saskatoon STARS base. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC News)

The non-profit air ambulance service is in the process of standardizing its entire fleet in Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba, replacing its nine Airbuses — the BK117, which STARS president and CEO Andrea Robertson said is no longer being made, and the AW139, which she said is technologically outdated. They'll be replaced by the Airbus H145.

This move has been recommended as the most cost-effective way to go, Robertson said.

While the new helicopter is very similar in range, speed and engine type, it is designed so that the back entrance, where gurneys are pulled on, is more adaptable.

"Medicine changes a lot," Robertson said, so the hope is that "over time we're not having to update the helicopter, but we simply update the equipment in the back."

The H145 that Fortin flew in on Wednesday — along with Premier Scott Moe — is the first of the new Airbus models to join Saskatchewan's fleet of three air ambulances.

STARS staff unveiled the new Airbus H145 at Wednesday's event. (Chelsea Laskowski/CBC News)

Crews will start taking patients on it within the next month, after finishing training on the new aircraft, Robertson said.

The changeover of three air ambulances in Saskatchewan, one in Manitoba and five in Alberta will cost a total of $117 million, STARS said.

Well over half of that money has already come to STARS by way of federal and provincial funding. The federal government announced in the spring budget that it's providing $65 million, and the province of Saskatchewan is providing $13 million. Other provinces have pitched in as well, Robertson said.

The new Saskatoon-based aircraft is the third STARS has now bought. It is using money from the sale of its old models to help fund the new buys.

The MC for the event, former premier Brad Wall, was one of more than a dozen current or past Sask. Party MLAs present at the base.

He told the crowd that they should be proud of, but not complacent with, the amount of money raised so far for the STARS "Keep the Fight in Flight" campaign, which received a $1-million donation Wednesday from Saskatchewan philanthropists Gordon and Jill Rawlinson.