Celebrating Local Heroes on International Civil Aviation Day

Today is an important milestone in aviation as we celebrate the 77th annual International Civil Aviation Day! When you think about aviation, airline travel may be the most common reference point, but without civil aviation, we wouldn’t have many of the products, goods, and services that make our lives better.  In some instances, like with PHI Air Medical (AirCare 5), civil aviation crews connect the public with life-saving medical care. The professionals at PHI Air Medical are highly trained healthcare and aviation professionals who provide critical care when it’s needed most. What you may not know is that SHD is the base for AirCare 5, one of seventy PHI bases in the United States and one of seven in Virginia. AirCare 5 primarily serves the Shenandoah Valley and surrounding areas. I recently interviewed Jim Miller, RN, CFRN, BSN, NR-P, Flight Nurse, and AirCare 5 Base Supervisor of PHI Air Medical to learn more about the scope and impact of their important work in our region. Join me in going behind the scenes with PHI Air Medical for Civil Aviation Day. 

Sunrise at the UVA helipad (Source: AirCare5 Facebook page)

Q: Can you tell me a little bit about PHI as a company and what you do as an air ambulance services provider?

A: For many years, the only air medical service for the Central Shenandoah Valley was Pegasus, UVA’s helicopter.  In 2004 the Central Shenandoah EMS Council (CSEMS) put out a request for a medevac system to provide service to the Augusta and Rockingham region. Though several programs applied, CSEMS chose PHI Air Medical.  PHI Air Medical is a division of PHI Inc.  PHI Inc. is one of the largest civilian helicopter companies in the world, with several hundred helicopters and locations all over the globe, including New Zealand. PHI Air Medical has over 70 bases in the United States, including seven in Virginia. AirCare 5 is one of them.  AirCare 5 staffs the helicopter with a critical care team composed of a nurse, paramedic, and pilot.  In addition to the medical team, each base has a dedicated mechanic to keep the helicopter in top-notched condition. The nurses are expected to have a minimum of three to four years of critical care experience in a large medical center.  The medics also need at least three years of field experience in a busy EMS system, and the pilots must have at least 2000 hours of flight time in a helicopter. AirCare 5 is equipped to handle the sickest of the sick. We carry blood, ventilator, infusion pumps, and a critical care monitor.  

Q: Who can request your services, and how does that process work?

A: The PHI Air Medical regional communication center for Virginia is located in Fairfax, Virginia, at INOVA Fairfax Hospital. When a helicopter is needed in the Central Shenandoah Valley, the hospital or 911 center will contact our communications center, and they will activate us. The AirCare 5 crew is on call 24/7, and we work out of hangar 4 at SHD.  

PHI on scene. (Source: AirCare5 Facebook page)

Q: What is your normal coverage area and average response times once you receive a call?

A: The majority of our flights occur in the Augusta or Rockingham area, but we will respond up to 100 miles in any direction.  We routinely respond to calls in Highland, Pendleton (WV), Shenandoah, and Page Counties.  One of our longest flights was from central WV to Pittsburgh, PA.  Being that we are always stationed at SHD, it takes us about an average of 9 minutes from the time the call is received, and the aircraft is lifting off.  

Q: How many patients do you fly on an average year?

A: AirCare 5 has completed over 5000 patient transports over the past 16 years.  We average around 350 transports a year.  About 55% of the flights are hospital transports, and 45% are scene flights.

PHI on scene. (Source: AirCare5 Facebook page)

Q: How long has AirCare 5 been serving the Shenandoah Valley?

A: AirCare 5 began service on April 15th, 2005. For the 1st six months in 2005, we “lived” in SHD’s hangar 3’s conference room while hangar 4 was being built.  Once it was opened, we moved to hangar 4.  AirCare 5 has continuously provided medevac services for the past 16 years to the citizens of the Central Shenandoah Valley from SHD.

Q: When did you join PHI and why did you decide to pursue this line of work?

A: I have been an EMT and paramedic since 1989 with the Charlottesville Albemarle Rescue Squad (CARS) and a nurse since 1996.  My love for EMS started when I was a teenager when my mom was an ER nurse, and my stepfather was a firefighter.  Once I graduated from college, I was looking for a way to volunteer my time, and joining the rescue squad was a “no-brainer.” I was volunteering as a paramedic at CARS and working as a critical care nurse at UVA when I was told that PHI Air Medical was going to open a base at SHD.  I immediately applied, for it is the one job that allowed me to combine my experiences as a nurse and a medic. Plus, flying in a helicopter is really cool!  To this day, I am still grateful I applied. I sometimes dread being a manager, but I love being a flight nurse.

Maintenance in the PHI hangar at SHD. (Source: AirCare5 Facebook page) 

Q: I know PHI offers a membership program that will cover the expense of air ambulance transport if needed in a life-threatening situation. Can you tell me how that works?

A: PHI Air Medical has a program called PHI CARES.  This is a membership program that creates a relationship between the customer and PHI Air Medical.  If you have PHI CARES and you (or a family member) are flown by PHI Air Medical (by any of the AirCare bases in Virginia), whatever is not paid for by insurance is written off, and you will never see a bill.  This can be a huge relief in a time of significant stress. The price is only $60 a year for a family and $40 for an individual.  There are also discounts for military and front-line workers.  For more information, please go to www.phicares.com.

Q: Is there anything else that you’d like people to know about PHI Air Medical?

A: Since day one, AirCare 5 and SHD have had a great relationship. We fly all over the state, but no other airport comes close to providing the customer service we receive at SHD.  It starts with the line staff and goes all the way to upper management. SHD goes above and beyond every day.  Occasionally we have staff members from other PHI Air Medical bases, and they will make comments such as “Wow, I wish we got the same service at our airport that you get at SHD.” We are very happy being a member of the SHD “family.”  If anyone ever wants to visit the AirCare 5 base, just come by.  We are in hangar number 4.

On International Civil Aviation Day, we celebrate the amazing healthcare heroes of AirCare 5 and everyone in civil aviation who makes important contributions through their work in aviation!