A forestry worker from Highland Perthshire has said he owes his life to the quick-thinking and bravery of Scotland’s Charity Air Ambulance crew members.
Andrew McKerchar (51) heaped praise on the Perth Airport-based lifeline service following a freak accident while felling and processing trees on land above Kenmore.
Without warning the ordeal on May 17 began when a link from a high-speed chainsaw broke off and hurtled into his chest.
Aberfeldy man Andrew’s first thought was that he had been shot as the metal missile smashed through the cab windscreen and punched into his chest.
It was only when he saw the chain of the large tree-felling saw hanging limply at the end of the mechanical arm that the experienced forestry worker realised what had happened.
“All I heard was a loud bang and the next second I was punched out of my seat by the impact,” recalled Andrew. “Then the pain kicked in and I thought I was going to pass out – it was horrendous.
“I clutched my chest and blood was hissing and bubbling out and I knew I was in real trouble. I really thought it was over for me.”
The heavy metal link, the size of a 10p coin, had acted like a bullet – smashing through the cab windscreen, firing into his collarbone, ricocheting through his lung and embedding itself in his shoulder-blade.
But amazingly, Andrew remained not only conscious, but took steps to stay alive.
Sheer willpower gave him the strength to place a toilet roll under his T-shirt to try to stop the bleeding – and turn the air conditioning on full blast to keep himself awake – while he managed to press redial on his hands-free phone and summon help from the estate office.
“The office told me the air ambulance and the trauma team were on their way, but I was worried they wouldn’t find me in time,” said Andrew.
“I was working in woodland on steep high ground above Kenmore and would be difficult to see.
“Adrenaline kept me going through the pain as I put the tractor unit into crawl mode and guided it out of the trees so that they would spot me.”
Andrew’s quick thinking helped SCAA locate him easily as they circled above the small clearing beside the stricken harvester.
When the call came in to the operations room at Helimed 76, the SCAA crew realised they were in a race against time to save the seriously injured forestry worker.
It appeared to the team leaving from Perth Airport that they would be faced with a penetrative chest wound and heavy bleeding. Every second counted.
And to complicate matters, the incident scene was in a small clearing on a sloped wooded area several miles from any main road.
The rescue helicopter took 15 minutes to fly there, but as it approached the incident scene, a whole new set of challenges presented themselves.
The pilot, Captain John Stupart, had to use all his expertise, cool-headedness and precision flying to land in the small clearing surrounded by trees, industrial vehicles and log piles.
“Once overhead, we quickly spotted the tree felling machine and a police car in a small clearing on the sloping hillside,” explained Captain Stupart.
“That open ground offered the only landing option for several miles.
“If we couldn’t touch down there we were looking at a landing at the foot of the hill, leaving the paramedics several miles over rough ground from the accident scene.”
After a high recce and low orbit, paramedics Craig MacDonald and Graeme Hay helped pilot John by acting as extra eyes as he brought the helicopter in for a final approach, having to pull back and circle again after rising debris threatened the helicopter rotors.
It took a second attempt to land safely on the forest floor slope without hitting the chopper’s tail.
“The only thing I could do was manoeuvre her through 90 degrees sideways to the wind and drop as slowly as I could while the guys kept eyes on the slope clearance and side clearance as well,” said John. “It was real teamwork to bring her down safely.
“The landing proved one of the most difficult I’ve faced during my years of flying air ambulances,” he added.
The pilot has been flying air ambulance helicopters since 2013, as one of the founding pilots at SCAA.
He also has extensive military helicopter flying experience, having joined the Army Air Corps in 1996.
“The safety of the helicopter and crew is of paramount importance and should never be compromised,” added John.
“But you’re also aware that there is a seriously injured person on the ground and the closer and quicker you can get your paramedics to him – the better chance he has of pulling through.”
As for the paramedics, once on the ground, they had to decide what to do as David had an obvious sucking chest wound where the link had torn through his lung – and Tayside Trauma Team were still minutes away.
The cab of the harvester was restricted, but Craig and Graeme stabilised their patient with oxygen and put a seal on the hole in anticipation of the trauma doctor arriving and administering the vital chest drain.
David’s injury was obviously very serious given where the wound was – just millimetres from his heart.
And because the link was still inside him, moving David was problematic as it could cause more damage if it shifted.
The crew successfully moved him to the newly arrived ambulance and helped Tayside Trauma Team’s consultant and A & E nurse drain bleeding from his chest cavity.
The decision was taken to fly him out to Ninewells Hospital at Dundee – just a 15-minute flight away.
The same journey would have taken over an hour and a half on uneven and winding roads.
Thankfully, after more than a week in intensive care and a complex operation to remove the chain link from his chest, David made a slow but steady recovery.
“There is no doubt that the speed, skill, judgement and quick actions of the SCAA crew, coupled with the rapid transfer to hospital, proved vital for the forester’s survival,” said a spokesperson from SCAA.
“All three crew faced a wealth of challenges and had to work extremely hard – and cohesively – for the benefit of their patient while keeping crew and aircraft safety at the forefront of their thinking.”
In a statement recommending John for the pilot award, SCAA said: “There is no doubt that John Stupart’s skills as a pilot helped save and improve the injured forester.
“If the paramedics had to be off-loaded several miles away, time-critical medical treatment would have been delayed.
“The pilot’s experience, confidence, attention to detail, quick thinking, cool-headedness, expert flying skills and dogged determination ensured not only the crew’s safe delivery within a confined and challenging setting, but also the rapid extraction of a time-critical patient to hospital care.”
Five months on almost to the day and still healing as the time goes by, Andrew expressed huge gratitude to his rescuers: “SCAA is a lifeline for all rural workers,” said Andrew.
“It gives us all peace of mind to know they will move heaven and earth to get to you when the worst happens.
“I will be forever grateful for what they did for me that day – they are amazing.”