Working closely with Shock Trauma Baltimore, MSPAC flies 10 AW139s to provide statewide critical care transport.
By Phil Rose
In the medical world, the term “Golden Hour” refers to the 60 minutes following traumatic injury during which a patient must receive significant care in order to survive. It means the difference between life and death.
Dr R Adams Cowley, a former military surgeon, was a pioneer in the emergency treatment of civilian shock trauma victims and a passionate believer in the importance of the Golden Hour.
In 1958, he founded the world’s first shock trauma center at the University of Maryland Medical Center in Baltimore. Within a decade, the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center was recognized worldwide as a leader in the field.
Cowley also believed in the value of urgent airborne medical evacuation (medevac) of critically injured patients to Shock Trauma, and was the founder and first director of the Maryland Institute for EMS Systems (MIEMSS).
Maryland State Police Aviation Command (MSPAC) had been formally established in 1960, using a Cessna 180 to provide airborne law enforcement (ALE) and search and rescue (SAR) support for the Maryland State Police. On October 20 that same year, MSPAC acquired its first helicopter – a Hiller UH-12E.
On March 19, 1970, a Bell 206 JetRanger operated by MSPAC transported a critically injured car accident victim to the University of Maryland Shock Trauma Center, marking the first time a US civilian agency had performed such a mission.
From that day on, MSPAC’s public safety roles expanded to include the provision of emergency medical service (EMS) to all Maryland residents. Starting in 1989, MSPAC transitioned from JetRangers to Aérospatiale (later Eurocopter) AS 365 Dauphins.
It operated 11 of these machines until 2013, when it began replacing them with 10 AgustaWestland (now Leonardo) AW139s, the first 6 of which were delivered in January and February 2013, followed by the remaining 4 that summer. Transition to the AW139 was complete by spring 2014.
Rising to the challenge
The State of Maryland covers 12,400 square miles and is home to more than 6 million people, making it one of the most densely populated states in the US. In addition to the urbanized Baltimore–Washington corridor, Maryland’s geography encompasses densely forested mountains in the west, substantial areas of agricultural land, Chesapeake Bay, and the marshlands of the Eastern Shore.
Providing rapid medical assistance to all the residents of a state with such diverse topography is a challenge, but MSPAC is well positioned to accomplish this.
Almost uniquely, Maryland’s medevac service is bought and funded by the state government through taxes and vehicle registration fees, making it free to the residents it serves.
To date, MSPAC has transported more than 180,000 patients. In the words of Commander Major Michael Tagliaferri, “This is an incredible, fully-functioning state medevac operation.
The State has decided this is a vitally important life-saving system for Maryland residents, and has always found ways to keep us funded.” MSPAC serves all of Maryland and up to 30 miles beyond the state borders.
It achieves statewide coverage by means of 7 Aviation Sections, designed for overlapping coverage and located as follows: TRP 1 at MTN (Martin State), TRP 2 at ADW (JB Andrews, Camp Springs), TRP 3 at FDK (Frederick), TRP 4 at SBY (Salisbury), TRP 5 at CBE (Cumberland), TRP 6 at ESN (Easton), and TRP 7 at 2W6 (St Mary’s County, Leonardtown). One AW139 is stationed at each location.
In addition, a Piper PA-32-301 Saratoga (TRP 9) is stationed at MTN for aerial reconnaissance, photo surveillance, and ferrying maintenance staff. Aviation Command employs approximately 70 pilots and 70 medics across the state, plus 18 maintenance technicians. These figures include 12 female sworn law enforcement officers (LEOs), 2 civilian pilots, and 1 civilian aviation maintenance technician.
Support personnel include procurement and human resources staff. MSPAC is a 24/7 operation, and all crew members are trained in the use of night vision goggles (NVGs).
Medevac flights constitute 80% of Aviation Command missions, with SAR, ALE, Homeland Security, and disaster assessment missions making up the remainder. Director Flight Operations Don Hawkins has been in aviation his entire career.
He served with the US Marines as a Boeing Vertol CH-46 pilot for 10 years, and flew SAR missions in Japan as an aircraft maintenance officer before going into the Reserves.
He later deployed to Iraq as a forward air controller, and eventually retired as a lieutenant colonel. Hawkins worked as a management pilot and flight operations manager for Piedmont Airlines.
Later still, he was the CEO of a civilian aviation-related business. He joined MSPAC in 2014 and flew the line for 7 years before becoming director of flight operations.
Pilot hiring requirements
Applicants may be former military or civilian trained. A second-in-command (SIC) position requires Comm/Inst/Helo ratings and at least 1200 hrs. For a pilot-in-command (PIC) position, the minimum requirement is Comm/Inst/Helo ratings and 2000 hrs. Successful applicants undergo a 10-week inhouse training program consisting of ground school and a combination of simulator and aircraft events before they are sent to their respective sections.
Here, further training takes place with their section instructor pilots (IPs) in order to familiarize them with their specific areas of operation. This training includes medevac, law enforcement, aerial rescue, and instrument procedures.
Instructor pilot (IP) positions are competitive, and applicants must hold a CFI/CFII rating. A standard crew consists of a PIC, SIC, crew chief/paramedic, and a rescue technician/paramedic.
While most MSPAC pilots are civilians – there are 2 sworn pilots – crew chiefs and rescue technicians are sworn Maryland State Troopers and have a role as tactical flight officers (TFOs). The rescue technician assists the crew chief in all aspects of mission execution, and both are advanced life support flight paramedics.
Pay and conditions
Pilot salaries are defined by Maryland State pay scales. Hawkins explains, “We hire pilots with 1200 hrs as Pilot I-A ($70K base). If they don’t move to a Pilot II/PIC position ($78K, 15 steps to $105K) after 300 hrs in the AW139 or 3 years in Aviation Command, they become a Pilot I-B ($74K base, 15 steps to $99K).
Pilots with over 2000 hrs may be hired directly as a Pilot II (and paid accordingly). Pilots are paid a salary based on hours on duty, not block times flown, and overtime can add significantly to the income.” He adds, “Everyone trains the same and every new hire starts flying as an SIC.
We fly as a crew, and it’s important that our pilots have experience flying multiple missions – our way – before serving as a PIC.” Crews work 12-hour shifts starting at 0700 and 1900.
Hawkins elaborates, “Section life is best compared to living and working in a fire house. We publish 28-day schedules at least 45 days in advance. They’re not fixed – as in, say, 7 on, 7 off – but are tailored to the needs of the aviation section and aircrew member requests.”
Civilian pilots are part of the Law Enforcement Officers Pension System (LEOPS), and are eligible to retire after age 50 with 2% of their salary for each year of creditable service, based on the average base salary of their last 3 years.
Hawkins adds, “If we stay 10 years, we can add up to 5 years of credit for military service, meaning that after 10 years, if we’re over age 50, we retire with 30%.” Other benefits include medical and high-risk life insurance.
MSPAC has operated the AW139 for 8 years now. Larger and more versatile than the Dauphins they replaced, MSPAC’s AW139s feature a custom-designed Aerolite medical interior, convertible if necessary to 9-pax configuration.
Each aircraft is equipped with a Collins Goodrich hoist and winch, a patient extrication platform (PEP) bag, rescue basket, “screamer suit” evacuation harness, and Stokes litter. Rappelling and fast roping attachment bars are installed on either side of the aircraft.
Standard equipment on MSPAC’s AW139s is an L3Harris WESCAM MX-15i EO/IR (electro-optic/infrared) imaging system for surveillance, and a Trakka Systems TrakkaBeam 800A searchlight, which can be slaved to the MX-15i. MSPAC is part of the bigger Maryland EMS system, and dispatch is handled through SYSCOM.
Responsibility for medevac helicopter communications lies with MIEMSS, and all medevac helicopters transporting patients to or from medical facilities within Maryland are required to communicate with SYSCOM. An MSP duty officer is stationed in SYSCOM to dispatch MSPAC helicopters.
Chief Pilot Tim McMahon notes, “Our main customer is the Fire Department. Once we receive a mission through SYSCOM, we have 10 minutes to launch and a further 20 minutes to be on scene anywhere in the state.” McMahon has 7500 hrs TT. He joined MSPAC in November 2012, after 27 years of US Navy active duty.
This included serving as a squadron commanding officer in Japan and commander of the Rotary Wing Weapons School embedded with the Navy Strike Fighter Tactics Instructor Program (TOPGUN) at the Naval Aviation Warfighting Development Center (NAWDC) at NFL (NAS Fallon NV).
McMahon has been chief pilot since November 2019. “Our goal is to provide the best medevac, SAR, and law enforcement service possible,” he says, “not only within Maryland but beyond. Our effective coverage extends all the way from Norfolk to Pittsburgh, plus the whole of Chesapeake Bay and the Potomac. We’re the first responders for the US Coast Guard within Maryland waters, performing the initial SAR until relieved.”
McMahon points out that some sparsely populated areas of Maryland are challenging for ground-based teams, adding, “We’re often the only means of rescue.” He explains that some emergency situations require MSPAC to work with a variety of first responders, including advanced technical rescue (ATR) swift-water teams, to ensure that an accident victim can be located successfully and rescued.
Maintenance Pilot/Command IP Ian Selby has 3000 hrs TT, including fixed- and rotary-wing time. A former USMC Bell AH-1W Cobra pilot, he joined MSPAC in 2014 as an SIC on the AW139 based at FDK, leaving briefly to fly for Under Armor before reconsidering and returning to the public service sector. He reflects, “What I’m doing with my skill set really matters to me.”
A medevac mission to transport a little girl with a blocked stent to a hospital convinced him. He says, “I made the right choice.” Command IP Dan McDonald has 5000 hrs TT, 1300 of them in the AW139. A former US Marine Corps helicopter pilot and operations officer, his service history includes a 4-year stint (from 2005–09) with HMX-1 at NYG (MCAF Quantico VA).
McDonald’s connection with MSPAC is deeply personal. At age 16, he was struck by an 18-wheeler and airlifted unconscious to the hospital by TRP 3 out of FDK. He remained in a coma for a month.
McDonald owes his life to MSPAC, and his gratitude takes the form of making sure that patients get to Shock Trauma within 1 hour. “Here, we emphasize the mission and the people you work with,” he says. “ As soon as the bell goes off, you see how serious it gets.”
Production Control Supervisor Jared Owens is in charge of maintenance production. A former US Army crew chief, he worked at Sikorsky’s 4PS8 (Coatesville PA) facility from 2008–17 before joining MSPAC.
One of 3 maintenance supervisors within Aviation Command, he oversees production control for a department whose maintenance technicians and supervisors are located at the sections as well as at MSPAC headquarters at MTN.
In addition to ensuring that the aircraft under his charge are in a state of readiness each day, he and his team carry out 50- and 100-hr inspections, fix unscheduled maintenance issues, and perform some heavy inspections.
“This is a very complex and rewarding job,” Owens admits, “but we have a good relationship with Leonardo PNE, and parts availability isn’t usually a problem. Overall, the reliability is good.”
Chief Flight Paramedic Sgt Jenna Turner is in charge of all medical training. She joined MSP 11 years ago after working as a paramedic in Pennsylvania. For Turner, MSPAC represents an ideal combination of medevac and SAR roles.
Plus, as she puts it, “the search-and-rescue capabilities of the AW139 are incredible.” Rescue technician candidates will already have completed 6 months of training in order to become a sworn LEO.
Turner notes that a typical paramedic class consists of 6 State Troopers and runs for 18 weeks. Newly-qualified Trooper Medic Hayley Dassoulas reflects that “Maryland has a lot to offer in terms of topography and variety,” and that MSPAC offers a unique opportunity to put her skills to use at whichever station she is assigned to.
Maryland’s $128.5-million AW139 package included approximately $6.25 million for a purpose-built flight training device (FTD). Utilization of the Leonardo-built FTD, which arrived 2 years after MSPAC received its final AW139, runs between 400 and 450 hrs annually.
For Aviation Command’s 70 pilots, the FTD is an invaluable tool for initial, recurrent, and standardized training. Faithfully replicating a (paperless) AW139 flightdeck, it includes Honeywell’s Primus Epic Phase 7 flightdeck with WAAS.
Pilots also attend Leonardo PNE for their AW139 type rating training. Last words “This is the civilian equivalent to flying multimission tactical,” says Hawkins, “but here, you’re flying — you’re not deploying.
You get to sleep in your own bed at least once every 24 hours.” Like every MSPAC team member, Hawkins is passionate. “It can be law enforcement, it can be medevac, or it can be SAR.
There’s just a tremendous amount of satisfaction being part of the mission.” And, as Major Tagliaferri puts it, “No other medevac operation comes close.”