• Facebook
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn
  • Instagram
  • Youtube
Helicopter Flight Training Sponsors

Why I Stayed On As a HEMS Pilot

Posted 6 years 263 days ago ago by Admin


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 life.

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 one.     

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?”

“Of course.”

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 [email protected]