“IT must be Government funded, it is a vital emergency service.”

This is still a common misconception many people hold about the Great North Air Ambulance Service despite it being funded and managed by a charity for 15 years.

Its team of lifesavers have flown to the aid of more than 16,000 patients and in return people across the North - saying thanks for helping them or a loved one or simply aware any of us could need them one day - donate the millions of pounds needed to keep them airborne.

That level of support has slowly built up since 1991 when an appeal was first launched with the aim of supporting an air ambulance.

It took almost four years to turn the dream into a reality and the North got its first helicopter air ambulance when the appeal bought and donated an aircraft to the Northumbria Ambulance Service NHS Trust.

But the running costs dwarfed public donations and in 1999 talk of setting up a charity to independently fund and run air ambulance services began.

In the early years the North East Ambulance Service Trust propped up the organisation until it became sustainable and a new age arrived in May 2002 when a charitable company was established, with headquarters in Darlington and a second craft based at Teesside Airport.

It has steadily expanded and strengthened its service since then and moved towards total autonomy.

It has led the way for other air ambulance services by introducing blood and plasma on board, innovative training courses for the next generation of medics and has worked on a national framework for air ambulances.

It stopped relying on ambulance services by employing paramedics directly, put doctors onto its aircraft and teamed up with the North East Ambulance Service to provide an all-night trauma team.

And its trading company runs a variety of recycling services from confidential shredding for businesses to clothing and books for the general public- making it the charity’s single biggest donor.

Today GNAAS has three Eurocopter Dauphin helicopters. The Guardian of the North, previously owned by former England footballer Michael Owen, is usually based at Durham Tees Valley Airport, The Pride of Cumbria, once a private aircraft operating in the Mediterranean, works out of Penrith, and a third provides cover for both.

The charity’s first ever fulltime employee Grahame Pickering, who had previously worked on the helicopter as a paramedic, gave up a secure pensionable job to keep the beloved aircraft flying.

Today he is the charity’s chief executive and says the landmark anniversary is testament to the generosity of the people of the North-East, Cumbria and North Yorkshire.

Mr Pickering, made an MBE for services to emergency healthcare, says: “The charity has evolved from very humble beginnings to become one of the UK’s leading air ambulances.

“Over the last 15 years, with the support of the general public, the charity’s innovative and ground breaking practice, often months or years ahead of other pre-hospital services, has enhanced the standards of care delivered to more than 16,000 patients in our region.

“Never before has the region had such an advanced critical care out of hospital service that has benefitted so many individuals and their families. A credit to the people of the North.”

Once upon a time GNAAS struggled to raise £50,000 a year from the public and had just one active volunteer but is now so important to the region it brings in £6m a year from corporate backers, wills, a lottery and events like sponsored runs and cake bakes.

On Saturday, 15 years to the day since it formally registered as a charity, more than 350 supporters will celebrate at an annual ball at the Hilton in Gateshead.

Among the guests will be North Yorkshire jockey Henry Brooke whose career was thrown into jeopardy in a nasty fall at Hexham Racecourse last year.

Thanks to GNAAS, which helped treat him at the scene before lifting him to Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary, and subsequently medics and Jack Berry House rehab centre, Mr Brooke has since returned to the saddle.

He says: “It’s hard to imagine what we did before GNAAS existed. My life certainly wouldn’t have been the same. It’s a great reminder for us all to dig deep and get behind this cause.”

Mr Brooke and his family have donated items to the auction at the ball, including a Grand National race card signed by all participating jockeys and signed Premier League football shirts.

Mr Pickering says: “We are proud to have some of our patients coming along on the night. We are hugely grateful to Henry for supporting us. After all, he and the other patients are the living embodiment of what we are here for.”