FORT BELVOIR, Va. (Feb. 16, 2012) -- The Fort Belvoir Community Hospital conducted its first official flight operations Thursday when a D.C. National Guard helicopter landed at the facility's helipad to test and validate lighting a sensor systems.

The exercise was the latest step for gaining the necessary certifications to begin receiving and medically-evacuating critically ill patients via air transportation.

The D.C. National Guard 121st Medical Company's UH-72 sat on the helipad for less than three minutes, but it was long enough for Belvoir Hospital Commander Col. Susan Annicelli to board it for a ceremonial flight.

Mark Diaz, chief of Operations and Emergency Management Division, said the helipad will considerably increase the hospital's capabilities. The facility currently uses one of two helipads on the installation and the closest is more than a mile away. Soon, Belvoir Hospital will receive medically-evacuated patients via helicopter right outside the Emergency Department's doors, he said, making it safer for patients and expediting the process.

"Having the helipad allows us to rapidly transport patients in and out of the hospital without exposing the patient to the inconvenience of using multiple [forms of medical transportation]," Diaz said.

Emergency Department's officer in charge Lt. Col. Timothy Barron said the hospital will be able to accelerate evacuations for critical care patients. He said helicopter flights would be vital for strokes, cardiac surgeries, pre-term labors, and trauma transfers.

"This will increase the capability of emergency medical services to move patients in the National Capital Area beltway and avoid traffic," Barron said. "We will also have the potential to receive immediate care patients from outlying hospitals, clinics or training sites."

Although the helipad validation process can take up to a year, Diaz said Belvoir Hospital will have completed its certification in six months thanks to the help of numerous departments. He said the hospital, as a whole, meticulously scrutinized the process while ensuring the safety of patients and staff, the aircraft, and the facility.

"At the end of the day, we have a state-of-the-art helipad with the latest safety features available," Diaz said.

The helipad testing and validation process is the latest step in bringing new services online at the $1.3 billion facility. The hospital is part of Joint Task Force National Capital Region - Medical, serving more than 80,000 beneficiaries in the region.