Yorkshire Air Ambulance chairman Peter Sunderland on the charity's work as he steps down

It is typical of those who make a difference that when they are in the spotlight, it is others they are quickest to praise – and that’s the case with Peter Sunderland. After nearly two decades Peter, 80, will retire as from Yorkshire Air Ambulance (YAA) at the end of June.

The Huddersfield-born man joined the YAA in 2004 after retiring from his role at the concrete firm RMC Group PLC, where he worked for more than 27 years as one of their UK directors, and has served at the charity as a trustee for 19 years and chairman for 17.

He is credited with leading the charity’s transformation to the organisation it is today – but he wants to thank its staff, sponsors, volunteers and all those who donate to the cause.

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Peter says: “There seems to be a magical formula that if you save somebody's life or help them to still be alive, but with perhaps life-changing injuries, then the family and everybody associated with them wants to raise funds for you as a way of thanking (you).”

Peter Sunderland, chairman of Yorkshire Air Ambulance.Peter Sunderland, chairman of Yorkshire Air Ambulance.
Peter Sunderland, chairman of Yorkshire Air Ambulance.

When he joined in 2004, the charity leased one Bolkow helicopter, which operated from a Portakabin at Leeds Bradford Airport, while the administration was carried out from a small office in Dean Clough Mills in Halifax.

“Income from donations was very small and hardly covered our costs,” says Peter, who adds that most people used to think the operation was NHS-funded.

During his time, the independent charity went on to buy and operate two Airbus H145 Helicopters, G-YAAC and G-YOAA – which are being replaced by new H145 D3 G-YAAA and G-YORX aircrafts – from Nostell Priory near Wakefield and from RAF Topcliffe near Thirsk.

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Peter, who now lives near Holmfirth, says: “Historically we flew in the winter for eight hours and in the spring and autumn for 10 hours, and during the summer 12 hours. It's extended our hours with two shifts at Nostell to 30 hours availability per day, which was a major impact because we could train the pilots to fly with night vision goggles. A lot of our pilots were ex-military so they were quite used to that and those came into service in early 2017, and proved extremely successful.”

Yorkshire Air Ambulance's new G-YAAA Helicopter ahead of its first mission in March 2023.Yorkshire Air Ambulance's new G-YAAA Helicopter ahead of its first mission in March 2023.
Yorkshire Air Ambulance's new G-YAAA Helicopter ahead of its first mission in March 2023.

Helicopters are now available in emergencies every day to help at the scene or transport patients to the nearest major trauma centre.

Treatment is also available at the scene of an incident to help patients when necessary.

"This one hour ‘golden hour’ that everybody talks about is a major life-saving factor. If you have a serious trauma and you can be in hospital or stabilized within an hour, your chances of surviving are enormous,” says Peter.

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"Whereas if it drags on and drags on, they go down with every passing minute, as it were.”

But it costs £19,000 per day to maintain and operate the helicopters, according to the charity.

Peter says the organisation tries to spend no more than 20p in £1 on administration costs, less than many other charities.

He has led on the implementation of many important milestones over the years including the purchase of helicopters, developing the two air bases at Nostell and Topcliffe and gaining the charity’s own Air Operators Certificate.

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Abby Barmby, director of marketing and communications, says: “Peter has truly been the pillar of YAA for nearly twenty years now and will be greatly missed by us all.

"His caring, yet professional leadership combined with extensive business experience proved invaluable in driving a clear vision, purpose and strategy for the charity over the last nearly twenty years. He introduced and implemented a robust financial accounting foundation which has been built on over the years, resulting in the charity being in the strong position it is today.

"He really has made YAA the respected organisation it is, not just as our chairman but as a true ambassador too – a legacy we will all carry forward.”

She added that the charity was “indebted” to Peter and his wife Peter and his supportive wife Margaret.

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When Peter stands down, current vice-chairman Mike Harrop will step into the role of chairman from the beginning of July.

Mike had a 30-year career in the Royal Air Force, including being the Station Commander at RAF Scampton, the home of the Red Arrows. He also has an extensive knowledge of YAA after becoming a volunteer back in 2017, before joining the board in 2019 and taking on the role of vice-chairman in 2022.

As well as his work with YAA, Peter has also been a member of the Wakefield Cathedral Council and is a past president and subscribers secretary of Huddersfield Choral Society.

In 2007 he was appointed a Deputy Lieutenant of West Yorkshire and was awarded an MBE by Queen Elizabeth II in 2016 for “voluntary service to the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the community in West Yorkshire”.

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Meeting the late Queen during the ceremony at Windsor Castle “was an experience to behold,” he says.

"She got on about how ‘I’ve learnt a lot about air ambulances from William’. You don’t think straight. William who? What’s she talking about? Then I realised she meant Prince William, who’d flown with East Anglian Air Ambulance for quite a while.”

Over the years, more people have chosen the charity as a place to leave legacies and give donations, and people are more aware that it is independent.

"The people of Yorkshire, we’re known to be sort of tight with our money, aren't we?

"But when the chips are down, I think they can be very generous at times.”