BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — A new, Vermont-based air ambulance began flying patients Thursday between hospitals in the northern part of the state and New Hampshire.

The University of Vermont Health Net Transport helicopter also will be flying to hospitals in northern New York, dramatically reducing the time it takes to move critically ill or injured patients from remote hospitals to medical facilities where more sophisticated care is available.

"This is a huge deal," said Mike Conti, the transport manager for the UVM Medical Center who has been working for years to set up the system that began flying missions Thursday.

Air ambulances, both helicopters and fixed wing aircraft, have been present in much of the country for decades. And while in many cases Vermont has been able to rely on helicopter ambulances from other states, having a helicopter based in the state helps close gaps in coverage when those other helicopters aren't available. The other helicopters will still be available for use in Vermont as needed.

"In much of Vermont we don't have 24-hour coverage of paramedics, the highest level of care," said Chris Bell, the director of emergency medical services for the Vermont Health Department. "So if that's the case, the helicopter is going to bring a paramedic and it's not going to have to stop for traffic on the way to the hospital."

With the opening of the South Burlington-based service, Rhode Island, with its short distances, is the only state that does not have an air ambulance service in the state.

UVM Medical Center President Eileen Whalen, whose medical background is in trauma and emergency medicine, didn't say why it took so long for an air ambulance to UVM.

"It's long been a dream of people here at UVM," said Whalen.

She said that treating critically ill patients faster, even with the increased cost of the transport, can save money in the long run by providing better outcomes for the patients.

The University of Vermont Health Net Transport air ambulance operation is a collaboration between UVM and New Hampshire-based Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, which provides the aircraft. UVM provides the medical crew.

Initially, UVM's helicopter will only carry patients between hospitals. The service will later be evaluated and it could be expanded to pick up patients at accident scenes, said Kyle Madigan, the director of the Dartmouth Hitchcock air ambulance program.

The helicopter will be based at the Burlington International Airport. It will be staffed 24 hours a day and fly when the weather allows.

The UVM helicopter opened for business at 9 a.m. Thursday. Its first call came at 9:45 a.m. when the crew was dispatched to fly a patient from Copley Hospital in Morrisville to Dartmouth Hitchcock in Lebanon, New Hampshire. From there the helicopter was called to Rutland to pick up a patient who was delivered to Burlington, arriving just after 4 p.m.