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Sun never sets on night-vision gear

Brian Roberts never realized how dark night really is until he wore night-vision goggles.

Roberts, a helicopter pilot for Mercy Flights, started flying with the goggles after Mercy Flights decided to expand its service hours past sunset. The goggles collect light that's invisible to the human eye and amplify it thousands of times, lifting the veil of darkness.

"Once you look through them, you wonder why you ever flew at night without them," Roberts said Wednesday.

The high-tech goggles aren't required by law to fly in the dark, but Mercy Flights managers decided to spend $300,000 for three pairs of goggles (and training for the people who wear them) to add an extra measure of safety to night flights, General Manager Ken Parsons said.

"We weren't going to push that night envelope without that equipment," Parsons said.

He said night vision devices are "the number one thing" that federal regulators recommend for night flights.

Mercy Flights previously restricted helicopter operations to daylight hours — about 14 hours a day in the summer, but just nine hours a day during the winter. Helicopter service will now be available from 6 a.m. to midnight.

Parsons said the need for expanded helicopter service developed as local cardiologists perfected a nationally recognized program for treating heart-attack victims that depends on getting patients to treatment as quickly as possible.

The operating plan calls for pilots to establish a number of landing zones across the region where they can land safely to meet patients that have been transported by a ground ambulance and then fly them to a hospital.

The goggles themselves look like a small pair of binoculars that attach to a pilot's helmet. They collect photons — particles of light — transform them into electrons, amplify the electrons, and fire them onto a screen, where they form an image for the viewer that's projected on the goggles.

Night vision devices have been around longer than many people realize. Primitive night vision equipment was developed during World War II, but the technology has improved dramatically in recent years. The first night vision devices amplified existing light by a factor of about 1,000. The newest devices amplify light 30,000 to 50,000 times.

"You see things you'd never see otherwise," Roberts, the pilot, said. "Things like aircraft, and falling stars way out at the end of the horizon."

He likened the image to looking at a landscape "with fresh snow on all the hills just as daylight's coming up.

Four Mercy Flights pilots and about a dozen medical personnel have been trained to use the equipment. On a night flight, the pilot wears goggles, along with one of the two emergency responders who fly with him. Parsons said that arrangement provides an extra set of goggles should the pilot's fail, and it also gives enhanced night vision to another person in the helicopter.

The helicopter had to be modified to accommodate the use of goggles. Doug Stewart, Mercy Flight's operations chief, said all the instrument lights had to be covered with filters because normal lighting would have been too bright for the goggles.

Stewart said access to state-of-the art night vision technology is strictly regulated by the federal departments of State and Commerce. Other than the armed services, only agencies such as ambulance companies are allowed to use the equipment, and its use is restricted to U.S. citizens, Stewart said.

He said all the Mercy Flights pilots and nurses who were trained had to produce a passport or birth certificate to establish their citizenship, and Mercy Flights had to agree that one of its nurses, a South African citizen, would not use the goggles.

Parsons said night-vision devices are gaining popularity among ambulance companies, but they're still more common in the West, where the topography is more varied and the weather can change quickly over short distances. He said most of the companies that use night- vision gear are large outfits with operations in several states.

"I don't know if anybody else as little and local as we are has done night vision," he said.

Reach reporter Bill Kettler at 776-4492 or e-mail:bkettler@mailtribune.com

Sun never sets on night-vision gear