Jets are the ideal aircraft to transport people over long distances at speed. It is no surprise, then, that the booming market for executive jets quickly got adopted by the air ambulance sector, where critically ill patients often need to be taken to a specialist centre or repatriated home as efficiently as possible. Although conversion to an air ambulance configuration has not always been cheap or easy, experienced manufacturers and modification organisations are now very adept at ensuring that these jets are mobile hospitals in the sky. Not only that, but companies that have multiple usage of their craft can often convert between multiple ambulance and executive configurations in under an hour, and back. We discuss four light- to mid-sized jets that are commonly used for air ambulance operations.
Dassault Falcon 900LX
The Dassault Falcon 900 series is unique in a variety of ways. As a trijet, the aircraft is able to boast an unrivalled fuel economy, with the consequence of a larger range than its competitors without the need for refuelling. Built by French manufacturer Dassault, the 900 series is a progressive iteration of previous Falcon models (the F20 and 50) that was first released in 1984. The 900LX is the latest version in the series and its range is a particularly attractive quality for air ambulance operators, who know the importance of long-distance journeys without wasting time to stop and refuel.
On top of its range, operators are also impressed with the internal cabin space, allowing for the transport of multiple critically ill patients as well as a large complement of medical and flight crew.
Paul Tiba, Managing Director of Airlec, an air ambulance organisation that has a Dassault Falcon 900EX in its fleet, said: “It is the only long-range jet capable of flying four intensive care patients with an augmented medical team.” He was also impressed by the durability and cost-effectiveness of the craft, saying: “[The Falcon 900 is] known to be extremely robust, with a reasonable operating cost for the uniqueness and versatility it brings.”
The aircraft alone is not the only consideration when looking for an air ambulance platform; Dassault has impressed its customers with its level of support, especially in a time when there are complex and broken supply chain issues. Tiba concluded: “I sincerely think it is the best aircraft for air ambulances.”
Cessna Citation XLS Gen2
A group of light- to mid-sized business jets, the Cessna Citation series has been in development since the early 1970s. One of the six latest existing versions that is often converted for air ambulance missions is the Citation XLS Gen2 (or XLS+); however, advancing on this model is the Ascend, which was revealed in May with upgraded avionics, engines and interior, and is expected to be operationally available in 2025. The Citation group of jets is one of the largest fleets in the world, with over 8,000 having been delivered.
The XLS Gen2 is comfortably spacious for its size, which is a considerable requirement for the accommodation of patients and accompanying equipment, whereby up to two life support systems can be installed on the existing seat tracks, making for easy switching of configurations between missions. The economy and reliability of the aircraft is also notable, as many operators have retained their craft for long periods of time. Hemma Niederegger, Project Manager for Sales and Marketing at Tyrol Air Ambulance, which has a Citation Bravo on its fleet, confirmed: “It is a very economic aircraft and ideal for shorter intra-European flights … It is a robust and reliable aircraft, easy to fly and good to maintain.”
Bombardier Challenger 650
The Bombardier Challenger 600 series are mid-sized jets that have been in development since the 1970s with the intention of creating a wide-body business jet. The current iteration – the Challenger 650 – is notable for having the widest-in-class cabin, permitting air ambulance operators to benefit from the added space for their patients and specialised equipment, an important consideration for the transport of critically ill patients. Tyson Smith, Air Ambulance Operations Manager for LifeFlight Australia, which operates four Challenger 604s, explained: “The cabin size and capacity of the CL604 are significantly larger than our previous aircraft … the increased cabin space enables us to easily accommodate specialised medical equipment, such as neonatal cots and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation teams.”
Operational affordability is also a factor when choosing a platform, and the Challenger 600 series has low parts costs and long maintenance intervals, with the 650 commanding the longest maintenance intervals when compared with its competitors. The large cabin also affords flexible configurability options, Smith added: “We can utilise the multirole cabin configurability to adapt the aircraft to different mission requirements. The standard two-stretcher configuration provides flexibility in accommodating two ventilated critical care patients, while in under an hour, our crew can reconfigure the cabin to total seating capacity to perform larger passenger uplifts and security evacuations.”
As with other manufacturers, Bombardier has made service and support a priority, but it is the enhanced adaptability of the aircraft that makes the Challenger 600 series stand out: “The versatility and capabilities of the Challenger 604 made it the ideal choice for our air ambulance operations,” said Smith.
Bombardier Learjet 75 Liberty
Also built by Bombardier, the Learjet series is no longer in production, but there are still several in operation and there is a strong market for used craft, making the upfront cost more affordable, even if parts are harder to come by. The Model 45 was first produced in 1995 and, as a brand, the Learjet became synonymous with executive travel. The popularity of the brand cannot be in question as there remain over 2,000 Learjet customers Bombardier continue to support.
The latest variant (Model 75) was produced from 2012 through to 2022 before Bombardier ceased production to focus more on its other larger platforms, including the Challenger series already discussed. With a range of over 3,800km, the 75 Liberty has an impressively long reach for international air ambulance operations, and the short single-point refuelling capability allows for rapid hops further afield. Tom Hienckes, Business Development Manager for European Air Ambulance (EAA), which operates three Learjet 45XRs, said: “Being based in the heart of Europe, Luxembourg, the Learjet 45XR can basically reach any destination within Europe without a stop. With one fuel stop, the Learjet 45XR can reach Western Africa and the Middle East.”
As a light-size jet, the Learjet is smaller than the other aircraft discussed in this review, but there is still room for two intensive care patients and a medical team, and the adaptability of its configuration is appreciated by air ambulance operators. Hienckes explained: “EAA can simultaneously transport two intensive care patients, or an incubator and a mother on a stretcher, or a single patient with four family passengers, as well as mission-specific requirements like our ground-breaking infectious disease module or unique stretcher system for heavier-weight patients.”
The 75 Liberty is also relatively fast for its size, which is crucial when transporting patients long distances to ensure that they get to their destination as efficiently as possible.