An Ambulance in the Air

The Baptist Medical Helipad. Photo: Ryan Ketterman

Life Flight marks 40 years

It’s been called a flying emergency room or an air ambulance. Carrying one patient, one pilot, one flight nurse, and one flight paramedic, the Life Flight helicopter transports critically injured and ill patients to all five Baptist Health hospitals and three of its four Baptist/Wolfson Children’s Hospital satellite emergency departments. This cutting-edge service has transported regional patients for 40 years. When it debuted in Jacksonville in 1980, it was the second air ambulance in the state and one of just 40 in the country.

Richard Malone, Baptist Medical Center’s executive director at the time, was instrumental in getting Jacksonville’s inaugural air ambulance off the ground. Before coming to Baptist in 1977, Malone was involved in a trail-blazing, hospital-based helicopter project sponsored by the United States Department of Transportation. “When Life Flight first started at Baptist Medical Center it was cutting edge,” recalls Richard Stromberg, an emergency medicine specialist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Life Flight’s third medical director. “Life Flight’s establishment marked an enormous change in how certain kinds of emergencies were handled because we suddenly had very rapid transport.”

Life Flight landing in 1980

Life Flight’s first day on the job was a busy one. Four minutes after it officially went into service on August 3, 1980, the French-built, single-engine helicopter took off from its blue landing pad at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville to airlift a Fernandina Beach man who had fallen into a vat of corrosive liquid. Later that same day, during the official dedication ceremony for the helicopter, Life Flight was dispatched to its second mission: transporting a Mayport Naval Station-based sailor severely injured in a diving accident. During that first year of operation, Life Flight flew 641 medical missions, with more than half of its patients being flown directly to area emergency centers.

Over the next 39 years, Life Flight would safely transport close to 25,000 adult and pediatric patients in the Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia region. Sam Young, manager of EMS Support and System Emergency Preparedness for Baptist Health and a former paramedic, flew on several different Life Flight helicopters over the years. “The original Life Flight was a single-engine helicopter. Then we transitioned to a series of twin-engine models,” says Young, who flew on and off from 1985 to 2001. “It was an honor to serve aboard Life Flight and a very rewarding experience.”

As Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville’s campus has grown over the years, so has Life Flight’s home base within it. The first landing pad was located in a small parking lot outside Baptist’s Emergency Center. In 2005, Baptist built an iconic, freestanding helipad. Its four-story-high structure reduces the noise and vibrations a helicopter would create if it landed on a hospital rooftop. Life Flight 1, the latest in a long line of medical helicopters that have called Baptist Health home, has been stationed at Baptist Medical Center South since 2017.

Life Flight, 1980

Life Flight 1 is a Bell 407GX that flies within a 150-nautical-mile radius of Jacksonville. “We fly trauma and medical patients from the scene to the hospital, or hospital-to-hospital transfers,” says Dane Taylor, senior clinical base supervisor for Air Methods Corporation, Jacksonville and a senior flight paramedic for Life Flight since 2007. “Medical calls range from heart attacks and strokes to high-risk pregnancy complications. We never know what the day will bring and nothing we do is routine.”

The vast majority of Life Flight pilots are retired military aviators. Many of the longest-tenured Life Flight pilots were decorated Vietnam veterans who flew medical or military helicopters during the war. Baptist Health oriented and trained the original crew, including registered nurses, paramedics, and dispatchers, and contracted helicopter service with Rocky Mountain Helicopters. Today, Baptist uses Air Methods Corporation, the largest provider of air medical transport services in the nation. Life Flight employs four pilots, eight flight nurses and paramedics, a mechanic, and a medical director. Baptist says that Life Flight nurses must have at least five years of critical care experience and Life Flight paramedics are required to have at least three years of high-volume 911 service. “The medical care rendered by the Life Flight crew is comparable to that of any intensive care unit,” says Brad Elias, Life Flight’s current medical director and an emergency medicine physician at Baptist Jacksonville.

Elias has served as Life Flight’s medical director for more than a dozen years. He says that Life Flight was the first rotor-wing air ambulance in the state accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS) and the first in Jacksonville to carry blood products. “CAMTS accreditation is highly regarded in the air medical industry and represents the hard work of the entire Life Flight staff, crew members, pilots, mechanics, leadership, and medical directors,” Elias says. “What that means to the community is that we are using the best evidence-based practices to care for our patients in the air and to rapidly get them to the next level of care that they need.”

As for what’s on the horizon, Baptist says that this fall, a new Kids Kare-branded helicopter is scheduled to go into service as part of the Life Flight program. Kids Kare will support Baptist’s pediatric critical care transport team, who care for and carry critically ill pediatric and neonate patients to Wolfson Children’s Hospital from around the region. With each year, Life Flight has continued to innovate, but the foundations of navigating its life-saving contribution to our region’s healthcare remain the same: weather, logistics, operations, and, most importantly, safety.

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