Posted 4 years 255 days ago ago by jhadmin
Flying a HEMS helicopter was one of the most dangerous jobs I’ve ever
had. One might rightly ask: Why would I stay in a job when I knew it
was so hazardous? I did it because the rewards of the job were many;
even reaching far beyond knowing I’d played a part in saving a human
Children often wanted to interview me or one of the other two Life
Flight pilots for papers they were writing in school. Many times, it was
hard to live up to the lofty image they had of you. But the adulation
didn’t come from just kids. At least once a week someone would stop one
of us in the U.C. San Diego Medical Center hallways or the hospital
cafeteria and thank us for, in their words, “the wonderful job you’re
doing,” or “the humane service you provide,” or most likely for our
personal contribution for saving the life of their friend or loved
From the very first shift I had in January 1979 at another location,
Hermann Hospital in Houston, I quickly learned the impact Life Flight
pilots could make … and the impact that career could have on us. My good
friend and Army buddy, Joe Sulak, got me that job. He took me up to the
ICU to visit a 12-year-old named David, whom Joe had flown in during
the night. David had a head injury. He’d also just lost both his parents
in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver.
The following story is just one of many I can recall that gives an
example of why I stayed on. It accompanied an article I wrote 32 years
ago for Rotor and Wing magazine entitled Life and Death—An EMS Pilot’s Viewpoint.
I had just finished my third flight that night, entering the second
day of my 48-hour shift. In those days we operated two pilots per
aircraft, so sleep and fatigue became a real safety issue. My last
flight had been dispatched at 12:30 a.m. to pick up a stabbing victim, a
young Mexican man involved in a gang fight in National City in San
Diego County. When I landed back at the hospital, I was asked to
accompany the patient to the trauma unit because the emergency room was
extremely busy and couldn’t spare anyone to meet the helicopter when it
landed. I readily agreed and helped push the gurney while the doctor and
nurse worked to stabilize the patient’s vital signs. When the patient
was in the competent hands of the trauma team, I took the empty elevator
to the ground floor and wove my way through the sterile hallways to
return to the pilot’s quarters, hoping to finally get some rest.
I was tired and feeling slightly sorry for myself for having to work
into the night long after the regular hospital employees had gone home.
The sound of my boots striking the hard linoleum floor reverberated
rhythmically off the white hospital walls. A nurse pushing a young boy
in a wheelchair suddenly rounded the corner ahead and approached me.
“Oh, look Tommy! Here’s the Life Flight helicopter pilot,” she said
by way of introduction. The boy looked up and half-smiled. He looked
thin and undernourished, with eyes too large for his face.
“Hi, how are you, Tommy?” I said to the boy.
“I’m fine,” he replied weakly without looking up.
The nurse caught my eye and mouthed something as if to keep the boy
from hearing. I understood what she was asking and knelt down on one
knee to his level to look him in the eye. “How would you like to go up
and see the helicopter?
The enthusiasm was immediate. “Yes, could I?”
“Sure, now’s the best time to see it when no one’s around. You can even sit in the pilot’s seat if you like.”
I led the two of them to the elevator, arrived on the rooftop helipad
and I switched on the bright helipad lights as the nurse rolled him up
to the aircraft.
I asked, “Would you like to sit in the pilot’s seat, Tommy?”
“Oh, yeah, could I?”
I bent over and scooped the boy up in my arms and placed him in the cockpit. His body seemed all bones and no flesh.
For about 15 minutes he asked excited questions, which I answered
while I pointed out the various instruments to him. Then I lifted him
back into his wheelchair and the nurse rolled him away.
The next morning there was a note in my mailbox in the dispatch center signed by the nurse I’d met in the hall. It read:
“Tommy could not stop talking about the helicopter and meeting you.
He has not been this happy in a long, long time. You see, he has
leukemia and his parents have abandoned him. They just can’t take it. He
told me tonight before he saw you that he wanted to die because no one
wants him. You made his night. God bless you.”
I was standing with the note in my hand when my radio and beeper
sounded the alert tone: “Life Flight One, respond for Black Mountain for
a hang-glider accident, map coordinates to follow.”
Keying the mic, I brought the radio to my lips: “Roger Life Flight One. On the way.”
I placed the note in the pocket of my blue flight suit and bolted out
of the dispatch center to meet the 5-minute liftoff time. The doctor
and nurse were just reaching the elevator to join me. It was 9:03 a.m.
on a sunny San Diego morning.
About Randy: Randy Mains is an author, public speaker, and a
CRM/AMRM consultant who works in the helicopter industry after a long
career of aviation adventure. He currently serves as chief CRM/AMRM
instructor for Oregon Aero. He may be contacted at