UNIT PROFILE

Pensacola-based Baptist LifeFlight

Eurocopter EC130s and EC135s serve Florida panhandle region HEMS and hospital missions.


LifeFlight Medical Director & Emergency Medicine Physician Jim Leker on the helipad with the EC135 at Baptist Hospital in Pensacola.

Dvorak joined LifeFlight in 1987, flying the BO105, and has since transitioned through most of the system's aircraft, accumulating over 10,000 hrs in helicopters. He comments that the EC135 is "a tremendous piece of equipment that the crews have fallen in love with."

Pilots generally work 12-hr shifts, 7 days on, 7 days off. Typically, at the beginning of the shift—either 7:00 am or 7:00 pm—the pilot will report to the base and receive an outgoing briefing from the pilot going off duty regarding the status of the aircraft, the medical crew and any maintenance issues.

In preparation for his work on the shift, the oncoming pilot will review current and forecast weather, Notams and TFRs for his area of responsibility, then brief the medical crew and preflight the aircraft in preparation for the next call.

Nurse/paramedic crews reporting for duty have similar responsibilities, including an outgoing brief with the medical crew they relieve and the requirement to review the previous shift's patient medical charts.

Pilots and crew have additional duties, including stocking the aircraft with supplies, patient follow-up and training. Each base is equipped with dedicated crew areas that include bedrooms, eating facilities, Internet and TV.

Pilot recruitment begins centrally at Air Methods home base at APA (Centennial, Denver CO), with interested candidates searching job postings on line via the Air Methods website, according to Mark Murphy, LifeFlight's lead pilot at its Mobile base. After initial screening by headquarters staff, qualified candidates are scheduled for an interview at the local base where the hiring decision is made.

Murphy explains that, while the minimum requirements are 2000 hrs TT in helicopters, in reality successful candidates have much higher qualifications.

Once hired, pilots joining Air Methods at any of the contract sites will travel to Denver for approximately 2 weeks to complete company "indoc" training, then return to the region to which they are assigned for aircraft specific training with an Air Methods instructor/evaluator.

Kevin Stanhope is LifeFlight's program director. He oversees more than 85 staff members and an $11-million budget.

All LifeFlight bases are night vision goggle (NVG) qualified, with the Pensacola operation also being IFR capable with its EC135.

Once aircraft qualification is complete, the new pilot will report to their base for orientation and area familiarization. Murphy explains that the entire process "takes 1–2 months to complete, depending on pilot experience."

All Air Methods pilots are covered by a collective bargaining agreement that stipulates base starting salary of $55,973, with additional incentives for higher aircraft certificates and ratings, ancillary responsibilities and base location differentials. Recurrent training for pilots includes the FAA required Part 135 checks plus quarterly ground and computer-based training.

Pilot hiring at Baptist LifeFlight is ongoing. Mark Murphy joined Air Methods/LifeFlight after gaining experience as a Marine AH1 pilot and instructor. He enjoys his pilot position with the organization, noting, "The company stays ahead of the curve when it comes to safety."

Medical staff are employed directly by Baptist LifeFlight. Each crew includes a critical care nurse and a pre-hospital-care paramedic. Stanhope notes that, although employed by Baptist, medical crews are dedicated strictly to the LifeFlight assignment and only do helicopter transport work. Medical staff work 24-hr shifts or 72 hrs per 2 weeks, which translates to about 6 shifts a month.

There is little trouble finding qualified candidates for these highly coveted positions, whether from within the Baptist system, from other hospitals or from other HEMS operators. Nurse candidates require a minimum of 3 years' intensive care experience plus paramedic certification, and paramedics seeking to join LifeFlight require a minimum of 3 years' pre-hospital medicine.

In practice, Stanhope indicates that medical crew joining LifeFlight have many more years of experience.

Helicopter maintenance

LifeFlight 1 crew with the Euro­copter EC135, the unit's first IFR certified helicopter. (L–R) Lead Pilot Bill Dvorak, Flight Nurse George Harris and Flight Medic Danny Mayfield.

Maintenance on each of the 4 LifeFlight helicopters is the responsibility of the base lead mechanic, who oversees all line and major maintenance activities for their aircraft.

A total of 5 mechanics employed by Air Methods are assigned to the LifeFlight program in support of the 4 bases.

Regional Lead Mechanic Phil Smith oversees management of the region. At Life­Flight's home base in Pensacola, Ed Denison is the lead mech­anic and maintains the Eurocopter EC135 they received last year. "This helicopter comes to Life­Flight with a big emphasis on safety," explains Denison, "it is IFR equipped, with autopilot, wire cutters and other equipment."

According to Denison, the maintenance personnel at the LifeFlight program allow them to keep much of their work inhouse. All line maintenance through 800-hr inspections is done on site, including daily inspections, rotor blade changes, avionics work and component changes.

Key to the dispatch reliability of the LifeFlight helicopters is long-range forecasting to ensure spare parts availability and minimum down time. Air Methods provides a spare aircraft whenever a dedicated aircraft will be out of service for more than 24 hrs.

All-Eurocopter fleet

LifeFlight replaced most of its aircraft in 2010, and 3 of the 4 helicopters assigned to the system joined the fleet in the last half of the year. When the 2007-model EC135 P2+ assigned to the Pensacola base came on line it was the first IFR-capable helicopter in LifeFlight's 3-plus decades of service and signaled the launch of IFR HEMS operations in the region.

When the EC135 started flying in Aug 2010, Lead Pilot Dvorak worked with the Pensacola ATC facilities to coordinate service for the planned start-up of actual IFR operations in February—a month that, historically, falls in the middle of the worst weather for the area.

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