is an air force in flight for life
blue and 52."In aviator-ese, those are near-perfect flying
conditions: brilliant azure skies, 52-mile visibility. A beautiful
courtesy of U.Va. Emergency Medicine
Pegasus helicopter prepares to land at an accident scene on
U.S. 29. Pilots work with on-scene rescuers to set up landing
zones in areas free from hazards like trees and power lines.
flight operations center, located at the Charlottesville-Albemarle
Airport, dispatchers and flight crew members are tidying up their
cozy quarters while taking turns attending to a demanding telephone.
But they all seem to keep one eye to the sky and one ear tuned
to the dispatch speakers, itching for a chance to fly.
the wall, there is a framed graduation memento from a member of
the Class of 2000 at Broadway High School in Rockingham County
-- a handsome senior portrait, an engraved graduation announcement
-- symbols of a happy passage in life.
would have been a completely different affair, however, without
the services of Pegasus and the others who attended to the young
man after he flipped his car and was trapped inside with life-threatening
injuries. The local emergency crews responded quickly, and soon
realized he would need the services of the U.Va. Medical Center,
a level-one trauma facility equipped to handle the direst cases,
and he would need them very, very soon. They called Pegasus.
a result of the coordinated efforts of the local crews, Pegasus,
and doctors at the Medical Center, "he survived what usually
are non-survivable injuries," said flight paramedic Steve
Elliott. In gratitude, he and his family delivered the framed
It's impossible to count the number of lives the Pegasus program
has saved, but air transport regularly cuts two-thirds off the
time needed for ground transportation. "Clearly, there are
patients who wouldn't have survived if they were transported by
any other means," said Dr. Debra Perino, the program's medical
this October morning, no call comes. It only makes the crew more
"If you work a shift or two without much happening, you know
it's coming with a vengeance," Elliott said.
hits the ground rolling
the mythological Pegasus, a horse with both wings and hooves,
the Medical Center's Pegasus program is now equipped for
throughout the region for its distinctive orange, blue and
white rescue helicopter, the Pegasus emergency transport
program this summer inaugurated a critical care ambulance,
the first of its kind in the area. The $178,000 vehicle
will take on missions that the chopper cannot, whether due
to weather conditions, distance limits or prior calls. It
will also handle many transports from doctor's offices and
hospitals that are not equipped to handle certain patients'
Put in service July 9, the ground unit -- nicknamed "Pega-Bus"
by crew members -- is already meeting initial projections
of about 20 transports per month, said Pegasus program manager
Mary Ann Himes Fields. And that's before winter weather
makes flying more dangerous, and before word has gotten
out to all of the outlying medical clinics and rescue units
within the ground unit's 21Ž2-hour cruising range.
the Pegasus ground unit came online, ground travel was provided
by either basic life support or advanced life support ambulances.
The main differences between the classifications lie with
the personnel who staff them. Advanced life support ambulances
generally carry two paramedics, while basic life support
units have two emergency medical technicians or one EMT
and one paramedic.
The Pegasus unit will carry the same crew as the helicopter
does: a nationally registered flight paramedic and a flight
we're providing services and a level of care not available
by any other means," said Dr. Debra Perino, the program's
ambulance is much more spacious than the helicopter, and
carries more drugs and equipment, including two generators
this truck is a rolling ICU," said flight paramedic
are even a few creature comforts, which can come in handy
on longer trips. There's a TV/VCR combo with a stock of
videotapes: some to entertain anxious children, and other
instructional videos to prepare older patients for procedures
they may undergo upon arrival at the Medical Center.
the ground unit is unavailable at night, but that may change
in the future, Elliott said.
goal is that when a referring doctor calls us to come get
a patient, we come and get the patient," Elliott said.
"They don't care about weather conditions or whatever.
Our goal is to be totally reliable for that need."
Pegasus crew consists of an experienced pilot, a critical-care
flight nurse and a nationally registered flight paramedic. The
entire program includes an elite group of nine paramedics, seven
flight nurses, four pilots, four drivers and two mechanics. The
helicopter, a leased Bell 230 that once served as a corporate
chopper before being refitted for medical use, flies about 800
missions a year -- 150 more than the national average, said Mary
Ann Himes Fields, the unit's hospital-based program manager. It
is on call 24 hours a day, with a service radius of about 120
are risks involved in helicopter medical flights. The roughly
180 such programs nationwide have experienced three fatal crashes
since Jan. 1 alone, with a total of 12 fatalities.
As of mid-October, Pegasus was nearing its 10,000th accident-free
flight since the program's inception in 1984. That's due to a
lot of hard work. Crew members travel around the region, instructing
local police, fire and rescue officials, and even corporate land-owners
in setting up safe landing zones away from potential hazards like
trees, communications towers, water towers and power lines. There
are regular safety meetings and reviews, both inside the unit
and with outside rescue personnel.
a flight, the helicopter generally circles the scene a couple
of times before landing, and any member of the crew can call off
a mission at any time, no questions asked.
"Safety is our No. 1 value," Himes Fields said. "We
never jeopardize safety." Crew members' ground duties vary
from serving as cooks and housekeepers, to stocking inventory
and assisting mechanics at their airport quarters. They also teach
courses in subjects like emergency transport and winter wilderness
survival, and take regular trips to weekend festivals to meet
the public, show off the equipment, pose for pictures and even
sell Pegasus memorabilia.
events can have long-lasting effects. Flight nurse Scott Singel
recalled one day when a squadron of Army Apache helicopters landed
at the Charlottesville airport. A copter buff, Singel wandered
over to check out the new arrivals. He struck up a conversation
with one of the pilots, who turned out to be a former local resident.
The Army pilot dug out his wallet and proudly shared a picture
of himself as an 11-year-old, posed at the controls of Pegasus.
"Public relations is a big part of our job," Singel
Pegasus is much more than an orange-and-blue "flying billboard"
for the U.Va. Medical Center, Himes Fields said. Besides providing
first-rate emergency care, the program is expected to pay for
itself; patients are billed for transport, she said.
the crew, the rewards are less tangible.
Elliott recalled a recent mission, when the helicopter was called
in to transport a 6-week-old infant. The tiny child, who had been
born prematurely, was thrown from his car seat in an auto accident
and badly injured. It was a very upsetting call, even for a seasoned
pro like Elliott.
A few days later, he went to the pediatric intensive care unit
to check on the baby, fearing what he might learn.
Entering the ward, Elliott found the infant -- well on his way
to recovery, and nestled in his grandfather's arms.
what makes this job kind of cool," Elliott said.