Dare MedFlight: Saving Lives in the Air

 In Health Matters, OBX Community

Gales of laughter fill the hangar as the newest member of the Dare MedFlight program shares what got her hooked.

“During basic training, one of the experienced paramedics showed me her helmet. Ever since then…” Abby Danaher says with a smile, her voice trailing off.

“Bitten by the bug!” fellow paramedic Ashley Johnson chimes in exuberantly.

A few years later, Danaher found herself wearing that helmet on a training ride with pilot Mike Hill.

“It was my first time in a helicopter. I got to sit co-pilot,” Danaher beams with pride. “I didn’t get airsick, so that was a plus.”

“She was smiling when she got out,” Hill adds with a grin of his own.

For these teams of pilots, paramedics and mechanics, their good-natured banter shows a fun-loving camaraderie that stems from being on duty together 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But 30 minutes later on this mild fall afternoon, the jokes are jettisoned in an instant when the pager sounds:

Can Dare MedFlight go? The team springs into action, and about 10 minutes later the helicopter departs Manteo’s airport for yet another mission.

Dare MedFlight is a state-of-the-art Airbus H145 with a range of approximately 400 miles and cruising speed of 150 miles per hour.

Plenty of air ambulances operate around the country – the Association of Air Medical Services estimates some 400,000 patient transports take place in helicopters each year in the U.S. But Dare MedFlight owns a unique niche within those stats. This is part of the Dare County Emergency Medical Services, envisioned by members of the Dare County Board of Commissioners back in 1986 and still supported by county government today. 

“It’s that philosophy that we take care of the community,” EMS Chief Jennie Collins explains. “Not many municipal systems have this.”

The reason to have MedFlight on the Outer Banks is obvious. With major trauma centers more than an hour away even in an ambulance with lights and sirens, that 30-minute helicopter flight to Norfolk can make all the difference.

“Not just saving lives,” says Director of Operations and chief pilot Chad Jones. “Quality of life with strokes, heart attacks, other time-critical conditions.”

Dare County got its first helicopter in 1975, primarily for law enforcement plus search and rescue. More than 10 years passed before a true medical helicopter was purchased. Today’s model is a state-of-the-art Airbus H145 with a range of some 400 miles and cruising speed of 150 mph, plus vital safety features.

Safety is everything to Dare MedFlight. The helicopter is housed in the Duvall-Willoughby Hangar. Just outside the front door, a memorial garden pays tribute to pilot C.C. Duvall and paramedic Stephanie Willoughby, who were killed in a 1989 crash. After transporting a pediatric patient to Norfolk in daylight hours, the duo was returning at night and hit a newly constructed – and unlit – cell phone tower.

“You never want to lose personnel in the line of duty and we’ll do everything humanly possibly to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” Collins says.

Chief Mechanic Howard Wilson and fellow mechanic Ted Shanks make sure of that. During the busy summer season, Dare MedFlight can fly three or four times a day, then go two to three days without a call. Pilots work 12-hour shifts and paramedics are on for 24 hours, averaging about two days in the helicopter and one day in an ambulance during a typical week.

Each shift begins with a briefing in the hangar to discuss weather and maintenance concerns. When the pager goes off, crews quickly confirm weather and maintenance status, perform a risk assessment for the pilot, calculate weight and balance and get any final gear loaded.

A 2005 Jeep Rubicon with about 1,200 miles on it – the dream vehicle of any motor pool firesale – cranks into four-wheel drive and tows the helicopter’s platform out of the hangar and onto the pad. The engines fire up, and after a final walkaround by the paramedics – who receive special flight training – the flight is underway. The entire process takes only 10 minutes.

Collins says about 60 percent of all Dare County EMS hires mention an interest in joining MedFlight at some point. Only full-time paramedics get to apply for a MedFlight assignment – no EMT basics or advanced EMTs. Each flight includes one pilot and two paramedics.

“I kept moving up and it all fell into place,” Johnson says of her shift to MedFlight, adding that going airborne is not for everyone. “Some (co-workers) say, ‘Uh-uh, that’s not happening.’ But it’s really cool.”

Still, Johnson possessed a few doubts when first considering the program: “‘You can’t guarantee me this thing’s not gonna fall out of the sky,’ ” she remembers thinking.

Then she met the mechanics and pilots and realized “this is their baby.” They take care of the helicopter because the consequences of not doing so are too grave to consider. Air ambulances actually had dreadful safety records in the 1990s and 2000s, with high-profile crashes happening all too often.

“The industry as a whole has come a long way,” says Wilson. “It had to make some changes. We don’t hesitate to take it out of service. I really love this job. I feel like I’m contributing my part by trying to keep the helicopter safe and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.”

From Left to Right: The Dare MedFlight pilot crew includes Director of Operations/Chief Pilot Chad Jones, Pilot Andy Reed, Pilot Jay O’Hara, Pilot Mike Hill, Pilot Harold Kelley and Mechanic Ted Shanks. Not pictured is Director of Maintenance Howard Wilson.

The crews never know when the next call is coming. Heroic Hollywood stuff like landing on the road at an accident scene happens rarely – maybe once a year – but there are about 15 LZs (that’s “landing zones” to you civilians) across Dare County where ambulances can transfer their patients to MedFlight, plus hospital-to-hospital trips.

“Some of them, we’re just a good mode of transport,” Johnson says of the patients they treat. “Some of them we have to work to save the whole time.”

Hill praised the paramedic crews: “I’m just the chauffeur,” he explains with a smile. “They do all the work – we just get ’em there. We need to focus on what’s going on up front. I don’t look back.”

For Jones, that proves a little more challenging. Early in his career, he was a full-time paramedic and part-time pilot. The Manteo High School graduate got his EMT certification while still in school: “I could push narcotics before I could drink a beer. At 19, I was in the back of a helicopter,” he says.

Eventually, he replaced long-time MedFlight pilot Milton Eaton, his mentor. Because of his background, it’s easier for Jones to process what he hears the paramedics talking about – and that’s not always a good thing.

“I miss being a paramedic sometimes,” he admits. “I love to fly but I didn’t want to leave EMS. This is the two things I love.”

It’s an odd job, really. Paramedics are folks people don’t ever want to see – until their life depends on them.

“You see an ambulance, it might not be that bad,” Jones says. “You see this thing, it’s probably a pretty rough day.”

Johnson recalls one trip when she was working on a heart attack victim who happened to be one of her former teachers. The next day, Johnson visited her and discovered the woman could not recall anything from the helicopter.

“Nine times out of 10, it’s such a bad day for them, they don’t remember it,” Johnson says.

Without Dare MedFlight around, those bad days might be final days for some folks. That thought is never far from the minds of the pilots, paramedics and mechanics who enjoy having a good time together – until it’s “go” time.

“It’s a humbling experience,” Danaher says. “The community puts a lot of trust in us. That’s very special and it’s something we value highly.” ♦

All photos courtesy Dare MedFlight.

Steve Hanf

Steve Hanf worked as a sportswriter for 13 years in North Carolina before finding a fun second career in the classroom. He currently advises the newspaper and yearbook programs at First Flight High School and loves his new life on the OBX.

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