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Please note: RPS House is closed for our exhibition install. We will be open again from 10am on Friday 9th August 2024.

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Meet the forgotten health heroes

Photographer Terry Donnelly FRPS tells us how he has documented the life-saving work of one of the UK’s 21 air ambulance services during the Covid-19 pandemic

Above: Critical care paramedic Ben Abbott


Over the past year I’ve been covering some Covid-19 stories in hospitals and reached out to Wiltshire Air Ambulance in January of this year and said, ‘Look, we need to capture and document what you guys are doing also.’ They’ve had to alter the aircraft and change their operating systems, and the way they’ve dealt with it has been phenomenal. They’ve let nothing get in the way of providing their service.

I went into their Covid-secure bubble – I did a bit of self-isolation before I went – and travelled to their airbase which is self-contained. I got Covid-19 tested before I was allowed airside by their medics. I stayed at the airbase for two nights and shadowed the HEMS crew.

We were working on the helicopter one day and then on the on-the-ground, rapid response vehicles the next. We attended missions on both days. I felt honoured to be told by the service they wouldn’t have trusted anyone else with this project, due to our existing and special relationship.

One of the most memorable pictures was of Joanne Gilbert. We’d been tasked to an incident – somebody had been in an accident on a horse – and when Joanne returned to the aircraft she took her PPE off. The marks and dents her mask had made on her face really told the story of what she’d done and what she was going through to provide that service. She never complained once throughout her gruelling shift.

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Above: Critical care paramedic Joanne Gilbert with facial marks caused by wearing PPE equipment


When I’m photographing in potentially emotionally charged situations I have to able to switch off and it becomes only about capturing the picture. If you allow yourself to get too emotionally drawn in, you become too involved. You’ve got to keep in your mind that you’re purely there to document what’s taking place.

I’ve had to be so careful about what photographs I show from this series. Patient confidentiality is paramount, as is the nature and content of the images. Air ambulances attend serious incidents with patients requiring emergency critical care. I have a great responsibility to show only what is ethical and right. The pictures shown have all been cleared for use by The Air Ambulance Service.

It was important to show the way that The Air Ambulance Service was run during the pandemic, as well as the underlying story. There are 21 air ambulance services around the UK, and none receives direct funding from the government.

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Above: Pilot Nicky Smith seen in the cockpit of Helimed22 wearing PPE and night vision goggles as she prepares the aircraft for flight to attend an incident during night time


The vast majority of what they do is funded by the charity section of each air ambulance. During the pandemic they’ve had to invest in PPE and change the way they work, and it’s all had a cost. The charity fundraising part of The Air Ambulance Service has also been affected ­– people can’t get out on fundraisers such as sky jumps, or hold events, and even the charity shops have been closed.

The air ambulance HEMS crew are exceptional at what they do. From taking a call from dispatch, the helicopter is in the air and on its way in less than two minutes. It’s like a well-oiled machine.

Photography is a powerful medium and I’m trying to use it to get The Air Ambulance Service across the UK as much exposure as I can. This is believed to be the first time a photographer has been given full behind-the-scenes access to any UK Air Ambulance Service. It is an important piece of photographic documentation of an HEMS service during the current pandemic.


All images are from The Air Ambulance Service project photographed in 2020 by Terry Donnelly FRPS.

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Images above, top to bottom: Critical care paramedic Paul Rock attends an incident wearing full hazmat suit; Helimed22 leaving Bath general Hospital piloted by Nicky Smith wearing PPE mask and night vision goggles; Critical care paramedic Keith Mills wearing PPE mask as he checks information during a night flight; Critical care paramedic Paul Rock attends an incident wearing full hazmat suit and medical kit.