ON THE GROUND: Devon Air Ambulance

Scheme: An air ambulance helicopter, operated by the Westcountry Ambulance Service

Funding: £1.3 million a year, through the Devon Air Ambulance Trust's own fundraising

Objective: To save lives by airlifting sick and injured people to major hospitals more quickly than traditional land-based ambulances

Sarah Burden's first trip in a helicopter was anything but enjoyable despite a lifelong fascination with all modes of transport. With five fractures in her pelvis, along with other injuries sustained in a road accident, she was airlifted to hospital by the Devon Air Ambulance.

Undeterred, however, she is now the full-time public relations co-ordinator for the trust that funds the service. Several of the trust's other employees also have the service to thank for saving their lives, or the lives of their friends or relatives.

Flying up to eight missions a day during the summer, the red helicopter is a familiar sight over the county's remote farmsteads and often inaccessible rural roads. It can reach anywhere in Devon from its base at Exeter Airport within 19 minutes - the sort of speed of response that could have saved the life of 17-year-old Ceri Thomas after being knocked from a bicycle outside his home in 1986.

Ceri's death prompted his mother Anne to set about campaigning and raising funds for an air ambulance for the county. It flew its first mission in August 1992, six years after Ceri's death, and is now fast approaching its 6,000th mission, dealing with everything from road and farm-work accidents to sports injuries. And with it being Devon, the latter includes a high number of horse-riding accidents.

Although paid for by the trust, the air ambulance is operated by the Westcountry Ambulance Service, which has trained 14 of its paramedics to work two at a time on the helicopter alongside its pilot. Pride of place in the cockpit, however, goes to Ambrose the Air Bear, and all children carried by the helicopter get an Ambrose.

The trust is using its 10th anniversary this year to raise the national profile of the service and press home the point that Britain's air ambulances rely solely on public donations to keep flying. A team of volunteers from Devon is planning to drive four sponsored vehicles on a trek the length and breadth of mainland Britain, visiting local newspapers, TV and radio stations to drum up support.

The £1.3 million a year that it takes to keep the service in the air comes mostly from locally-based fundraising. It does not qualify for Lottery funding because the end user is deemed to be the local health authority.

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