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Mentor Tips Worth Heeding

Posted 5 years 201 days ago ago by Admin

I was a full-time municipal firefighter 20 years ago, while at the same time flying helicopters on my days off. In 1999, I was offered a job as a pilot flying helicopter air ambulance (HAA.) It seemed a perfect fit as I not only had experience treating patients in the streets and setting up HAA landing zones, but I was a local pilot with significant experience.

In in the life of an HAA call, there are two major decision points that are singular moments that can change the arc of history. The first moment is when the pilot must decide whether or not to launch. When everything’s normal, (i.e., weather, crew, and maintenance) the decision’s easy; you launch. The second moment happens when en route and some part of the flight begins to degrade. The pilot finds himself at a crossroad: keep going or turn around and head back to base?

Today, there are many great acronyms and risk assessment tools to help make those decisions. In my transition to HAA, there were two key people who pulled me aside and gave me advice that not only stuck with me, but was put into action several times.

When first hired to fly HAA, my director of ops sat me down and said, “When it comes to decision-making, I want you to place no more value on a patient than a sack of dirt.” My initial response was one of surprise. He went on to explain that because I was a Marine and firefighter, that my training and inclination was to take risks and to go towards the danger. He was right, no arguing with that. He told me that I need to change that thought process and to understand that I was not hired to save lives. Instead, he explained, “Your job is to bring our helicopter and crew back to base with a wide margin of safety . . . every time . . . period.”

He further elaborated that I was only to evaluate factors like weather, crew, and maintenance in my decision-making and that patient status should have no bearing on that process. Leave the emotion out of it.

Another senior pilot shared a great piece of advice with me. When things degrade while en route, like weather for example, typically the first reaction is to lower the collective, slow down and re-assess. His tip: The instant you lower that collective the second time, let that serve as a giant red flag. Turn the helicopter around and let the patient go by ground.

I was fortunate to be surrounded by seasoned HAA pilots willing to share their wisdom when I was a new air ambulance pilot. Inside this issue dedicated to our HAA professionals, we highlight one such operation dedicated not only to patient care, but also dedicated to safety. For 20 years, LifeFlight of Maine has been serving Maine citizens with innovative solutions, as well as safe, efficient air transport when needed most.