'My jaw hit the floor – the future King of England as one of our pilots!'

Patrick Peal smiles in front of East Anglian Air Ambulance warehouse

Patrick Peal, chief executive of East Anglian Air Ambulance and co-founder of the charity, retires after seven years in the role. - Credit: East Anglian Air Ambulance

Not many pub conversations save thousands of lives – but that is how the East Anglian Air Ambulance was launched. Not many people recruit a future King of England either – but that is what Patrick Peal was astonished to find himself doing.  

Patrick Peal, who was recently confirmed as chief executive of the East Anglian Air Ambulance

Patrick Peal as he took over as chief executive of the East Anglian Air Ambulance - Credit: Archant

Patrick is retiring as chief executive officer of the East Anglian Air Ambulance, 25 years after he first dreamed up the idea with former RAF pilot Gerry Harmer. 
In the 20 years since its first mission the East Anglian Air Ambulance (EAAA) has attended more than 31,000 incidents and saved many thousands of lives. 
“I couldn’t be prouder of the organisation as it stands today,” said Patrick who was a trustee before  becoming CEO in 2014. 
The service has bases at Norwich and Cambridge airports and around 25 pilots, 30 doctors, 20 paramedics and 350 volunteers as well as charity staff. 

And for two years, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge, was on the staff. “He was terrific,” said Patrick. “He was a first class pilot, one of the top pilots, and that’s no mean achievement because we have a very rigorous selection process. The flying can be very challenging. They are landing in people’s back gardens in the dead of night. 
“His fellow pilots rated him as one of the best. He was very happy to get stuck in and do CPR to help the critical care team.” 

Patrick explained how the appointment came about. “Prince William was given the Dukedom of Cambridge and the EAAA got in touch with Kensington Palace to ask if he would like to have some sort of connection because it was based at Cambridge airport. Gradually it became clear in 2014 that Prince William would indeed be interested and had done all that was necessary to become a pilot. 

“When that was made clear to me I have to say that my jaw hit the floor – the future King of England as one of our pilots!” 
Prince William had been an RAF search and rescue pilot and Patrick said: “He was very much part of the team. He would go off and make us a cup of tea.” 
He said the Prince, who donated his salary to charity, is still in touch with former colleagues. “It’s a very demanding environment. You rely very heavily on those around you and some of the friendships you build will be lifelong,” said Patrick. 

The Duke of Cambridge before he started his final shift with the East Anglian Air Ambulance

The Duke of Cambridge with colleagues ahead of his final shift with the East Anglian Air Ambulance - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Patrick was born and brought up in Norfolk, starting his career as an engineer with Lotus and becoming its head of communications before setting up public relations company, Tribe, which he ran for 20 years.  
He first met Gerry Harmer, who had been an RAF search and rescue pilot and founded Norfolk’s first police helicopter unit, when he booked his helicopter flights for a Lotus open day. 

Later they were talking about the search and rescue helicopters moving from RAF Coltishall. “He said maybe we should start a service to fill the gap. When you are sitting in a pub you think ‘Good idea!’ And then the hard work started.” 
They spent the next five years gathering funds and the EAAA began as a six-week trial. “It’s been called out more than 31,000 times in 20 years. There are probably thousands of people who wouldn’t be alive without it,” said Patrick. Asked whether particular incidents stood out he said: “The last patient is the most important.”  

The EAAA is called to around nine emergencies a day, including road crashes, accidents and medical incidents.  
“Our purpose is to deliver a doctor and paramedic to the patient as fast as possible,” said Patrick. “It is a charity that is there for anyone at any time.”  
With a £15m annual turnover the EAAA relies on fundraising and donations. “I’m hugely grateful for the support we get from the people of Norfolk,” said Patrick. 
He has overseen the creation of a new headquarters at Norwich Airport and a new operational base in  Cambridge as well as an aftercare service for patients and first aid training for the public. The EAAA is employer of the year in the latest Norfolk Business Awards and Patrick has been eastern England’s third-sector Institute of Directors director of year.  

Patrick's final task was to launch round the clock air coverage from both Norwich and Cambridge. “The charity has benefited hugely from his ambitious vision, dynamism and charisma,” said EAAA chairman William Cubitt. 

Patrick, 67, lives with his wife in Southrepps, near Cromer, and plans to stay involved in EAAA as a volunteer. “They would have to work very hard to keep me away!” he said.
He flies light aircraft – but is no helicopter pilot. “On an off-duty flight Gerry let me have a go once. About 30 seconds later he took the controls back! If you take your hands off an aeroplane it tends to continue flying. If you take your hands off a helicopter it wants to fall out of the sky!” 
He is delighted he will still see the air ambulance helicopters as they use Northrepps airfield, close to his home, for night training. “I get huge pleasure from seeing the aircraft flying. You get a lump in your throat,” he said.

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