Beacon In The Night Helicopter Ambulance Crews Save Lives Despite Risks Of Flying At Night

Shattering a silent, winter night, the Northwest MedStar helicopter’s turbine engines roared to life.

Thirty miles away at Eloika Lake, a man was dying. The ambulance crew treating the heart attack patient knew they couldn’t make it to a Spokane hospital in time.

So pilot Chuck Booth and two medics scrambled into their blue-and-white helicopter perched atop Sacred Heart Medical Center and thudded into the darkness.

The night sky started out clear, but by the time Booth set the copter down in an empty grocery store parking lot and the crew carried the patient aboard, thick fog had blown in.

“I lifted off, looked around and couldn’t see a thing,” Booth said. “It was blacker than the inside of a cow.”

He radioed the ambulance for help. The driver switched on his high beams, allowing Booth to follow the vehicle’s illuminated path.

“I knew there were hills to the right and left, and a road right down the middle of where we were,” the pilot said. “I just flew right down the middle.”

Then the fog melted away, and Booth could see the distant lights of Spokane.

They made it to the hospital that night several years ago, but Booth doesn’t know if the patient lived or died.

Medical crews don’t tell air ambulance pilots the condition of their patients, said MedStar director Pam Sheldon, who also serves as chief flight nurse.

“You don’t ever want to put more undue pressure on a pilot because that’s not fair to them,” she said.

Like Booth, most of MedStar’s 10 helicopter pilots have dramatic stories to tell.

Throughout the Inland Northwest, they airlift critically injured patients to 40 different hospitals. Last year, MedStar was the nation’s fourth-busiest flight-rescue unit.

From east of the Cascades to North Idaho and northwest Montana, the region’s diverse terrain forces the pilots to stay alert.

“I remember one night I was making an approach out in the (Spokane) Valley, and I couldn’t tell if I was approaching a cloud, a mountain, a lake or an open field,” said pilot Tom Horner.

Horner, a retired Army pilot who served in Vietnam, said flying to nighttime emergencies can be hazardous duty.

“You get emergency ground crews, deputies, firefighters, State Patrol, who tell you they’ve cleared a landing zone.

“But it’s dark out, and they didn’t see a bunch of power lines you’re about to fly into. Those things are invisible at night.”

Snowstorms can also strike suddenly, especially at night.

Booth recalled leaving Spokane in another winter emergency, headed southeast to Rockford. The weather was clear when he left Sacred Heart about midnight, but a storm from Coeur d’Alene quickly rolled in.

“We got up in the air, landed at Rockford and turned around for Spokane. But as we approached Freeman, the lights of that town got dimmer,” Booth said.

“It seemed strange, so I turned on my searchlights and boom - just like that - I realized that I was flying in a snowstorm.”

Booth set the copter down and radioed for help. A fire-rescue crew from Rockford wound up driving the patient, an injured man, to Spokane. Booth hitched a ride back to town on a Rockford Fire Department brush truck. For two days, his helicopter sat in Rockford, covered with snow.

Northwest MedStar formed three years ago when Deaconess Medical Center and Sacred Heart merged their former flight crews, Lifebird and Heartflite.

Today, MedStar employs 45 people - pilots, medics and mechanics, clerks and dispatchers.

The company has a fleet of four helicopters and two Cessna airplanes. One on-call helicopter waits on the roof of Sacred Heart. The others are parked at Felts Field.

Cessna pilots fly longer-range missions to Portland and Seattle.

Unlike the airplane pilots, helicopter pilots are forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration to use computer instrumentation for flights.

“Back-country pick-ups are the worst,” Horner said. “It’s like flying into a hole.”

And there’s no time to file a flight plan.

There also isn’t time for pilots to think about the victims lying next to them.

“You can’t hurry by flying faster than conditions will allow. The machine can only do so much,” said pilot Tony Paay. “You don’t want to do anything to further jeopardize that patient, and you and the crew.”

The cockpit is small. The pilot sits up front, to the right. Behind the pilot are two medics. On the trip home, the medics tend to the patient, who is sprawled on the stretcher to the pilot’s left.

Said Paay: “Sometimes you hear later that they died. But you can’t ever ask yourself, ‘Was there anything I could have done differently when I was flying?”’

MedStar base manager Ken Simonian said his pilots log 3,000 to 4,000 flight hours a year.

Each has at least 10 years of flying experience and 7,000 career flight-hours. They work three 12-hour daytime shifts in a row, then are off for 24 hours before working three 12-hour nighttime shifts. After that, they get six days off.

In spite of the nontraditional hours, pilots say their love of flying and saving lives makes the job worthwhile.

Paay said he couldn’t imagine doing anything else.

“There’s something about flying, especially at night,” he said. “The air is smoother, there’s a lot less chatter on the radio, it’s just so much more peaceful.

“Even though we’re trying to keep somebody alive.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: RISING STAR Last year, MedStar was the fourth busiest flight-rescue unit in the country. It is the region’s only flight-rescue unit.

This sidebar appeared with the story: RISING STAR Last year, MedStar was the fourth busiest flight-rescue unit in the country. It is the region’s only flight-rescue unit.

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