Using Aviation to Save Lives
A U.S. Coast Guard HH-60 Jayhawk helicopter hovers low over the sea as an aviation survival technician (AST) prepares to jump during a rescue demonstration at Reserve Training Center Yorktown. ASTs are helicopter rescue swimmers, emergency medical technicians and provide all aircrew survival training to USCG aviators.
Credit: USCG photo by PA2 Jacquelyn Zettles

Anyone who has ever needed an emergency medical flight or has been rescued by the U.S. Coast Guard will tell you the most wonderful thing about aviation is its usefulness in saving lives.

Million of people throughout the world owe their lives to the skill and dedication of pilots and specialist crewmembers who operate search and rescue (SAR) and ?life flight? missions.

Often these highly skilled personnel operate in very difficult conditions. Just days ago a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter hovered a few feet above a narrow, rocky ledge 7,000 feet up a snow-covered mountain while an aviation survival technician (AST) winched down to harness a badly injured climber so he could be safely brought onboard.

Operating to and from small helipads in dense urban areas and often called to fly to remote sites inaccessible to ground transport, the pilots flying life-flight helicopters and the highly trained medical staff onboard must stay cool under extreme pressure.

Because of the emergency conditions in which life-flight helicopters?and the business jets that operate life-flight missions internationally?are operated, the medical staff crewing them are usually more highly trained than the staff crewing ground medical vehicles.

While ground ambulances often are staffed by two emergency medical technicians, life flight aircraft are more usually crewed by nurse-and-paramedic teams qualified to administer drugs as well as first aid, said Blair Beggan, a spokeswoman for the Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS).

A life-flight aircraft is ?a flying emergency room, really,? said Beggan.

The helicopters that operate short-distance life flights must be large enough to carry the patient on a gurney, as well as a medical team of two or more people and any medical equipment needed to keep the patient alive. The helicopters most favored by life-flight operators in the United States are manufactured by MD Helicopters, Eurocopter, Bell Helicopter Textron, Agusta Westland and Sikorsky.

AAMS boasts some 270 life-flight operators as members. Most are U.S. operators, but AAMS has members based internationally in Canada, Europe and elsewhere. Several members are based in New Zealand.

Many people don?t realize that some 70 percent of the life flights that emergency medical helicopters perform in the United States are actually made between medical facilities rather than to transport people from accident sites or from remote locations, said Beggan.

In many cases flights transport critically ill or injured people from hospital emergency rooms to more specialized trauma centers where they can immediately receive the specific lifesaving care they need.

Emergency medical helicopters also often transfer organs urgently required for transplant or blood immediately needed for transfusion. But most life flights are made to save the lives of patients who have suffered heart attacks or strokes or who have suffered major trauma injuries in events such as automobile accidents.

Although individual hospitals and group hospital operators own a significant proportion of the U.S. life-flight fleet, nowadays ?probably 60 percent? of the helicopter operators are independently owned, said Beggan. Some of these companies employ their own medical teams, though others rely on client hospitals to provide life-flight medical staff.

Many AAMS member operators base aircraft at several different sites.

Best-known of all of the United States? aerial saviors are the crews of the 144 SAR helicopters and 53 fixed-wing surveillance aircraft operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

Often operating in appalling weather conditions, these dedicated crews contribute significantly to an astonishing lifesaving record that sees the USCG responding every year to some 60,000 emergency calls at sea and in remote U.S land areas to save nearly 5,000 lives.

In the two-week period during and immediately after Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, the U.S. Coast Guard saved more than 33,000 lives along the Gulf Coast.

It stations SAR helicopters and crews on its ships and at facilities on the East, West and Gulf coasts of the United States; in Alaska, Hawaii, Guam and Puerto Rico; and on the Great Lakes and inland U.S. waterways.

Thousands of people in the United States also give thanks to the private pilots of the Air Charity Network?s Angel Flight wings, who give their time and use their aircraft to help others in great need.

These flyers operate a wide variety of missions, said Randy Richison, Oklahoma-district wing leader of the South Central Angel Flight chapter. They carry people who need treatment in far-distant locations for diseases such as cancer; transport organs for transplant; fly in support of disaster relief; and provide transport to wounded soldiers and special-needs children.

Selecting missions from the chapter?s online mission board, Richison tries to operate at least one Angel Flight a month. He flies each mission at his own expense except for his Cirrus SR22 aircraft?s direct operating costs, which the organization reimburses. Others fly even more.

U.S. Coast Guard flight crews, life-flight helicopter teams and Angel Flight pilots perform a vitally important role?and they share a great dedication.