Flight for Life Keeps Hope Aloft: Service Provides Lifesaving Transit Across Colorado

PUEBLO, Colo. — It was just before 1 a.m. last Friday when Flight for Life got its first call of the day. A 15-year-old boy in Trinidad had overdosed and had to be transferred to Children’s Hospital in Denver.

Kathy Mayer, director of Flight for Life, was the guest speaker at Pueblo Rotary Club 43 Monday and described for the group what it was like during one 24-hour period.

One of the company’s fixed-wing airplanes was dispatched out of Centennial Airport and brought the teen to the Denver hospital, where he remains in serious condition. By 8:50 a.m. the Pueblo-based helicopter was on its way to Trinidad again, this time to bring a 52-year-old woman to Penrose Hospital in Colorado Springs where they treated a life-threatening case of sepsis, a deadly, whole-body infection.

By the end of the day, there had been eight helicopter flights, one fixed-wing flight and five ground ambulance transfers.

Flight for Life traces its history back to the 1970s, she said, and was the first private helicopter ambulance service in the country.

Mayer said that it was a combination of factors that led to its creation. Pilots and medics were returning from Vietnam where they’d learned firsthand the value of helicopter transfers. Colorado was a contender for the Winter Olympics and there were concerns that injured athletes or spectators could not be moved quickly enough to Denver from the Beaver Creek area because the Eisenhower Tunnel was still under construction and Loveland Pass easily could be blocked with snow.

In addition memories of the deadly crash of a chartered plane carrying the Wichita State University football team near the location of the tunnel on Interstate 70 drove home the need for helicopters. Mayer said that some of the 31 lives lost in that crash might have been saved if those people could have been moved quickly to Denver.

Then-Gov. Stephen McNichols had asked St. Anthony Hospital to come up with a plan for a helicopter ambulance to serve the Olympics. A group of 11 people, including nurses from the hospital’s specialty areas, were assembled and Flight for Life was born. Since they were the first, she said, “They had to write the book on their own.”

Today, the service employs 130 people. It has four helicopters, two fixed-wing planes and three ground ambulances. Last year, it added the fourth helicopter in Pueblo and now has units in Denver, Colorado Springs and Frisco.

The service averages 4,000 transfers a year and 10,000 requests. Often the requests are for standby or ones that have to be turned down because weather doesn’t permit the aircraft to take off.

Snow, fog and wind are the biggest problems for the helicopter service, she said. There is no way to de-ice helicopters and Flight for Life has its own wind limits, more strict than the Federal Aviation Administration’s, because it becomes too hard to treat patients when the craft is being bounced around.

In addition to nurses and paramedics, who accompany pilots, Flight for Life even can transport rescue dogs and handlers to avalanche sites. That’s going to become important now with snows beginning to melt, Mayer said.

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