Saving lives in Big Sky country

Eurocopter AS350B3 AStar and pair of King Air F90s fly patients to western Montana's trauma center in Missoula.

By Jay Chandler
ATP/Helo. Learjet, Shorts 360, Sikorsky CH54, Boeing Vertol 234

(L–R) Rotary Wing Pilot Todd Dry, Chief Flight Nurse Larry Peterman, Fixed Wing Pilot Ken Griffith and Lead Mechanic Dean Baier in front of a Life Flight King Air F90 and the AS350B3.

Big Sky country means lots of sky and wide open spaces which can only be found in the spacious state of Montana. The western part of the state is covered by St Patrick Hospital and the Life Flight EMS flight program. Mountainous and rugged, the territory around Missoula MT offers many challenges for flightcrews, but the reward and job satisfaction are high.

St Patrick Hospital has operated an EMS flight program in Missoula for over 32 years. Metro Aviation has provided pilots, mechanics and aircraft for the past 12 of those years.

Program Dir Carol Bensen says that, with a helicopter and 2 fixed-wing aircraft, Life Flight is almost an international EMS service, with the helicopter for local patient care and the airplane for longer patient transports, including trips to Canada. Life Flight covers all of western Montana and eastern Idaho and flew more than 800 flights in the program last year.

As far back as the early 1950s—prior to Life Flight's first flight on Feb 26, 1981—the US Forest Service covered the area with Bell 47 helicopters. St Patrick Hospital is the only Level 2 trauma center for western Montana and Life Flight is the only 911 air response in its service area.

Crew makeup on a typical flight—both helicopter and airplane missions—is one pilot, a critical care paramedic and an RN flight nurse. Life Flight's Eurocopter AS350­B3 AStar is based at MT23 (St Patrick Hospital Heliport, Missoula MT), and the 2 King Air F90s are based at MSO (Missoula MT). All Life Flight aircraft are available 24/7.

Fixed-wing crews remain at the hangar during the day for 12-hr shifts but are on call 24/7.

Metro Aviation

Chief Pilot Glenn Bowman is a 13-year veteran of St Patrick's Life Flight program. Metro Aviation provides pilots, mechanics and aircraft for the EMS operation.

All pilot and mechanic personnel are provided to St Patrick through a contract with Metro Aviation of Shreveport LA. Normal requirements for pilot positions advertised on Metro Aviation's website are a commercial pilot helicopter certificate with helicopter instrument rating.

Minimum flight time is 2500 hrs PIC helo, including 100 hrs of night flying, with night vision goggle (NVG) experience preferred. Pilots work 7 days on, 7 days off, with 12-hr shifts alternating day and night.

Two mechanics are on staff and work on both aircraft types. Minimum requirement for mechanics is an A&P certificate, but both Life Flight mechanics also have their IA certificates. Mechanics work 8–9 hrs a day with rotating 14-day shifts.

Lead Mechanic Dean Baier is a 13-year veteran of Metro Aviation and has worked on helicopters since 1974. Brandon Redmon, Life Flight's second mechanic, has worked for Life Flight for over 5 years and has spent 12 years in the GA maintenance business. Redmon attended Tulsa Technology Center in Tulsa OK, completed its aviation maintenance program and worked at various GA positions until settling into the Life Flight program and Metro Aviation.

Metro Aviation holds the FAR Part 135 certificate and maintains operational control of the flight program. The aircraft are visible on Metro Aviation's tracking system and can be followed by Metro Aviation personnel throughout the mission for safety and accountability purposes.

Fixed and rotary-wing ops

Pilot Todd Dry, a 5-year Life Flight veteran, prepares for another mission in the Eurocopter AS 350B3.

Life Flight operates a day/night VFR helicopter program with NVG capability to service the rugged terrain of western Montana. Helicopter Lead Pilot Glenn Bowman has been with Life Flight for 13 years. He flew for the US Marine Corps, US Navy and Montana Army National Guard prior to coming to Life Flight.

He is dual rated in both airplanes and helicopters but only flies the AStar. While he says that he chose EMS flying because the job is steady and full-time—not seasonal like fire fighting or logging—he finds the EMS work more rewarding. At the end of the day he knows he has done something that made a difference.

Heading up the fixed-wing side is Life Flight Airplane Lead Pilot & Check Airman Ken Fielding. He has been in Missoula since 1991, flying the fixed-wing aircraft. Fielding started flying in 1971 on his own, then worked his way up through the civilian ranks at an FBO doing all the jobs needed to make it in the aviation market today. And make it he has, with over 10,000 flight hours to his credit and counting.

There are 4 King Air pilots on the airplane side of the house. They work 6 days on and 6 days off. The 6 days on consist of 3 days followed by 3 nights, with 12-hr duty days. Exper­i­ence abounds in the airplane department—the lowest-time pilot has 6000 hrs and the high-time pilot has logged over 12,000 hrs.

The pilots are kept busy, with 23% of flights destined for BFI (Boeing Field, Seattle WA), where there is a major trauma and burn center. Another large part of their flights go to surrounding communities beyond helicopter range to pick up patients and bring them back to Missoula for St Patrick's and Community Medical Center's higher level of care.

Dispatching and a safety culture

Dispatching for the Life Flight Program is contracted through Northwest MedStar of Spokane WA—a well established regional flight program not affiliated with any hospital.
According to Program Dir Bensen, "Northwest MedStar services a consortium of hospitals with a very well developed dispatch center, which is why St Patrick contracted our services with them."

When a call comes into the local 911 center, they notify the flight program and the dispatch center. The flight dispatch actually comes from the dispatch center for flight following purposes. Northwest MedStar contacts the pilot for official notification and the pilot checks the weather and makes a go/no-go determination without knowledge of any patient details.

The launch decision is based on established criteria and not influenced by the emotional desire to push through at any cost—a scenario that has played out in many EMS helicopter fatalities across the country in the past.


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