'We're airborne in 90 seconds'

Captain Neil Parkinson (right), 33, is the chief helicopter pilot for Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance

What do you actually do?

I arrive at eight in the morning and get the helicopter out of the hangar for its daily inspection, then wait for our first call. The air ambulance base isn't quite a hollowed-out volcano like in Thunderbirds, but we do have a red phone that we call the "batphone". As soon as it rings, I run out and start up the helicopter, the paramedics take details from control, and we're usually airborne in 90 seconds.

It's a big scramble, and often it's only once we're actually in the air that we get an update on exactly where we're going. The paramedic and doctor will listen out for the radio and help me to navigate. The three of us are a very close team, so we all help each other.

Why do you love your job?

Ever since I was a child, I wanted to fly - and flying an air ambulance is incredibly exciting because we get to do things other pilots can't. The Civil Aviation Authority gives us right-of-way over all other aircraft, and allows us into restricted airspace.

We fly very low, at almost 200mph. Unlike most pilots, I'm not flying to airfields - we might land in someone's back garden. Because we're saving lives, it's extremely rewarding. We're not flying people as famous as (Top Gear presenter) Richard Hammond, but people are always coming to the base to say thank you. I'm very lucky that I get paid to do what I love. We're a charity, so I think the real heroes are the volunteers who raise money for air ambulances.

What's tough about flying an air ambulance?

When I got the job, I was already an experienced pilot - but I'd never even seen a broken leg. On my second day, we went to a 250-car pile-up, with four people dead. It certainly isn't for everyone. For the air ambulance to be called, it's got to be serious. We deal with a lot of car crashes and industrial accidents, and we went to the London bombings in July 2005. You see horrible sights, and it can be tough for a new pilot.

What skills do you need?

You need to be a very capable, natural pilot. There's a lot of thinking as you go, in a constantly changing environment - you don't have time to plan routes. We're a crew, so you really need to be a team player. We encourage everyone to learn about each other's jobs, so it helps to take some emergency medical courses. In terms of qualifications, first you need a commercial pilot's licence, which usually takes at least a year, and then masses of experience of fast low-level flying.

What advice would you give someone who wanted to be a helicopter pilot?

Don't give up. It's a long, tough road, and getting your licence is very expensive, so you can get into debt. When I was 13, I started washing aeroplanes at my local airfield in exchange for flying lessons. I got my pilot's licence on my 17th birthday, before my driving licence. I built experience by taking people on sightseeing rides and working as a flying instructor and examiner.

What about the career path and the salary?

There are lots of flight schools where you can train to get a commercial pilot's licence. It's also worth talking to people at your local airfield. Salaries depend on the work you're doing - if you're willing to do corporate work, flying VIPs to conferences, you could end up earning £75,000 to £80,000 a year. Top captains at big airlines earn more than £100,000. A very experienced air ambulance helicopter pilot could earn between £45,000 and £60,000 a year.

For information, and to support Warwickshire and Northamptonshire Air Ambulance, see www.wnaa.co.uk. For details on training, see the British Helicopter Advisory Board site at www.bhab.org

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