It began with a borrowed police helicopter one day a week. Today two aircraft are on standby every day.
In between is a remarkable story of dedication, determination, and public support.
The East Anglian Air Ambulance service has just celebrated its 15th anniversary.
And when Anmer resident Prince William joins its ranks as a pilot this summer he will become part of one of the most sophisticated and highly skilled airborne emergency teams in the UK.
Its distinctive yellow helicopters operate from bases at Norwich and Cambridge airports, ready to respond to the most urgent 999 calls over 5,000sq miles of Suffolk, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, and Bedfordshire.
On board each flight is a doctor – often a senior consultant from a local hospital - and a specially-trained critical care paramedic.
It is not only the fastest way of getting patients to the right hospital. It also brings skills and equipment once only found in accident and emergency departments.
In desperate situations delivering critical care to the scene of a car crash or medical crisis can make the difference between life and death.
At the very least it gives them the best possible chance of a good recovery.
Patrick Peal, now the service’s chief executive, was in at the start, one of two people who quite literally got the project off the ground.
The other was Gerry Hermer, who once led the search and rescue unit at RAF Coltishall and was awarded the Air Force Cross during his flying career. He is now the EAAA’s aviation consultant.
In the nineties he was running a helicopter charter business in Norwich. He and Patrick, then head of PR for Lotus Cars, became friends after Patrick hired his aircraft to transport VIPs.
“In the mid nineties the Norfolk search and rescue unit was relocated to Suffolk,” said Mr Peal.
“Gerry said, ‘This is awful, it will take longer for a helicopter to reach emergencies here. We should try to get an air ambulance going in Norfolk.’
“I agreed to raise some money to run a trial. We borrowed the police helicopter and got permission to put a paramedic on it one day a week. We did some good work, and in 2000 the charity was set up. One small helicopter was all we could afford.
“In the first year we managed to increase to five days a week. At the start, the ambulance service loaned us paramedics.
“We doubled the size of the operation in 2006 by setting up a base at Cambridge airport and a year later we had two helicopters working seven days a week.
“The next really big step was changing from two paramedics on board, to a doctor plus a critical care paramedic who is trained to an even higher level than road ambulance crews. What we have now is a very rare and very capable team.”
The service took another huge step forward when it became the first Helicopter Emergency Medical Service (HEMS) in the UK to get clearance to fly at night.
Mr Peal has been EAAA chief executive for 18 months and has now given up his PR agency to go full time.
He was previously a trustee and deputy chairman.
The charity employs more than 50 people. It has a large fundraising department working to raise the £10 million a year it costs to run.
He said: “It’s a privilege to work with all our teams. They are all at the top of their game,
“I see myself as being at the bottom of the organisation. What me and my team do is support the others so they can give the service to the community. Our pilots are mostly ex-military, and they undergo extensive training to operate in the HEMS role.
“We have absolute right of way over every other aircraft in the sky.
“It is amazing what small spaces they can get into when they land, pretty much the size of a tennis court – fields, back gardens, river banks, or on roads.”
The EAAA helicopters are leased from Bond Aviation, who maintain and repair them, and provide back-ups if needed.
Brand new Anglia Two is based at Cambridge. Anglia One, which flies from Norwich, is due to be replaced next year with a second H145 model giving them two of the most advanced air ambulances in the UK.
Prince William, who is currently on paternity leave, will join the service at Cambridge in a few weeks’ time.
Dealing with the most severe emergencies and traumas means all crews face times when despite their efforts, the patient cannot be saved.
“Everyone on the helicopters is part of a very close-knit team,” said Mr Peal. “This is a job that is incredibly demanding and rewarding, but doesn’t always have the ideal outcome.
Crews work in shifts. The night shift flies until midnight then its paramedics stay on duty, using a car, until 1.30am.
They answer an average 140 calls every month, mostly cardiac arrests and road accidents.
Funding the service is a tough job.
There are some grants. A recent £1.7 million from the Government fund financed by fines from the Libor bank interest rates scandal will bring forward the new Anglia Two project.
But most of the cash has to be raised by the charity – and this is where the other indispensible element of the air ambulance service comes in. It is us, the public.
Without support – from buying lottery tickets to major fundraising efforts – the service would be grounded.
The fundraising teams also work closely with businesses, including C & C Recycling which has given £100,000 over the years, and Jackson Stopps and Staff estate agencies in Norfolk which donate £10 for every house sold.Kersey Freight from Hadleigh in Suffolk donates advertising space on its vehicles.
“We are extremely grateful for the support of the people we serve,” said Mr Peal.
“Our lottery is a major part of our income.
“Community fundraising is also vitally important. I think most people know of someone who has been helped by the air ambulance.
“We also receive donations, and people leave us legacies, which is very thoughtful and kind. Our slogan, together we save lives, could not be more apt.”
For more information on the work of the EAAA, visit www.eaaa.org.uk or call 08450 669 999. You can follow them on Twitter at @EastAngliAirAmb.