The Saga

I’m currently in website update mode, which entails finally posting some of my past writing. I wrote this in 2003, but I’m posting it now because it holds up well; this was one of the most exultant few months of my life.

The Saga Begins

The saga begins in June. As most everyone here knows, for the last few months, I’ve been living in West Virginia, and working as a helicopter pilot for Petroleum Helicopters, Inc. (PHI) in Louisiana, flying people and cargo from Gulf Coast bases to offshore oil platforms, on a 7-day on/7-day off schedule. Also as almost everyone knows, my eventual goal is to fly EMS helicopters in my hometown of Morgantown, WV.

In order to make the switch, I needed at least two things. The first was flight time: 2000 total hours, 250 hours in turbine-powered helicopters, and 250 night hours. At that time, I had basically all of those except for the night hours, and it was unlikely that I’d get them, as most Gulf helicopters (of the type I fly) only operate during the daytime. As you might imagine, it’s very easy to lose which way is up at night when you’re surrounded by dark ocean under a dark sky (especially if it’s cloudy, which it often is in the Gulf), so for that reason, night flying is discouraged.

The other thing I needed was EMS experience. This wasn’t a listed requirement, but it was a requirement nonetheless. The Morgantown EMS contract is not owned by PHI; it’s owned by a company called Air Methods, and since they’re not as large, they don’t have the (substantial) assets needed to take an otherwise-qualified non-EMS pilot and turn them into one. PHI did (and does), however.

From the people I had been talking to (and eventually to me), then, it made sense to do EMS at PHI first. In addition to gaining the required (hours and job) experience, I would have the added bonus of a safety net; if PHI trained me, and then for some reason I found out EMS and I weren’t a good match (didn’t fit well with medical crews, not comfortable enough yet flying at night, etc.), I could always go back to the Gulf of Mexico. If I quit PHI to work at Air Methods, only to have to transfer back to PHI when things didn’t work out, I would be losing quite a bit of pay and seniority. The one problem with PHI EMS is that they required pilots who transferred to EMS to live within 50 miles of the base (wherever it was), and to stay there for two years. Since there weren’t any bases close to WV, that didn’t sound like much fun, but it seemed quite worth it, as once I was finished I would be an unstoppable EMS pilot candidate; every base (including Morgantown) would want me.

My strategy, then, was to continue flying in the Gulf until a PHI EMS job opened up. My problem was that, when I hired on, PHI was going through EMS changes; they were getting rid of most of their non-profitable EMS bases (which was most of them), and not adding any more. When I started with PHI, and until recently, there were probably a total of 10 EMS job openings, and all of them went to pilots with far more seniority than I.

This summer, though, PHI began expanding one of its (profitable) EMS operations; Phoenix, Arizona. They were opening a brand new base out there, and they needed four new pilots. Since most PHI pilots have been with the company many years, and don’t particularly want to move across the country for a new job, it was thought that new guys (at almost two years, I was still “new”) might have a chance at it. The job posting came out in June, I put in for it, and must have greatly annoyed Scheduling by calling every few days to see if anyone else higher on the seniority list had applied for it. (“Did I get it?” “We don’t know yet; call back later.” “Did I get it?” “We don’t know yet.” “Did I get it?” “Stop calling us!“)

For most PHI job postings, if you’re the highest on the seniority list, and fulfill the job requirements, you get the job. Since EMS requires the pilot to work closely with a medical crew, and since it requires more judgment than Gulf flying, the applicants highest on the seniority list are interviewed by medical staff, and if they pass the interview, they get the job.

When the job posting closed, I found out that I hadn’t advanced to the interview stage, but not for the reason I thought: they didn’t take me because I didn’t have enough mountain flying time. This was odd, because mountain experience wasn’t a requirement; it was only listed in the job posting as something nice to have. (I basically filled all of the “required” requirements, and thought I was at least guaranteed an interview because of that.) Furthering my confusion was the fact that I had been to Phoenix, and although there were mountains around it, the city, and much of the surrounding area, was flat-as-you-can-imagine desert.


My d’oh intensified when I started making calls. My PHI flight time log (from which they made their decision) said I had almost no mountain time, because that’s what I had put in the mountain time blank at PHI orientation, and I had flown exclusively in the flat Gulf Coast since then.

Previously, though, I had flown quite a bit in West Virginia, as well as in Phoenix itself (I spent two weeks there two years ago getting my instrument helicopter rating), so I thought that I might be able to at least put some of that time down as mountain time, since there’s no official definition of “mountain” flight time.

I called up the company Keeper of All Knowledge (also known as the PHI Training Department), and explained my predicament. To my surprise, the instructor who answered said that, for the purposes of PHI, all flight time done in “mountainous regions” (as defined by the FAA) of the U.S. counted as mountain time. Flipping quickly to the relevant page, I discovered that all of West Virginia (about 140 of my flight hours) and the part of California that included Los Angeles (about 130 hours, and where I had also flown) counted as mountainous areas. Within five minutes, then, I had gone from 0 hours mountain time to 268.

Yes, I thought. At least this won’t happen again; even the job posting said that it would be great if applicants had only 150 mountain hours. I quickly filled out the appropriate form, and my flight time became instantaneously spiffier-looking. While I was in paperwork mode, I put in for an aircraft transition to a slightly faster, more powerful, and bigger aircraft than the one I was flying (a Bell 407, from a Bell 206). If I couldn’t have the EMS, I’d at least learn a sexy new aircraft (the Bell 407 is undoubtedly that), and some EMS positions actually use the 407, so I might even get a leg up on the competition.

And then I waited. It couldn’t take long, I thought. There’s been one juicy EMS job posting; there has to be another one soon. I was wrong, and right, at the same time.

It turns out that one of the four pilot positions in that first opening was filled by a pilot already in Phoenix (but at another Phoenix base; there were six bases in the area), and one Phoenix pilot left, so PHI had urgent need of two more pilots, but they weren’t able to put out an official job posting for it. I caught wind of it (good thing I was keeping my ear close to the ground), and put in for it.

Okay, I thought. I have the required flight times, I even have many of the not-officially-required flight times, and I definitely have mountain time. I’ll have to get an interview.

And that’s what happened. After a call from the EMS pilot manager in Phoenix (“Haven’t I seen your resume before?” “Didn’t you have 0 mountain time two weeks ago?” “You talked to who in Training?”), a phone interview was scheduled between me, a member of nursing management, the pilot manager, the PHI Director of Scheduling, and a physician manager, on June 13. Friday. At 4 pm.

This could be my big break, but I had never had an EMS interview, and I didn’t know what to expect. I did know that I was going to do my best to not get caught unawares. I couldn’t change my personality or my experience, but I could change how much aviation knowledge I knew, so I started preparing: regulations, policies and procedures, and talking to other pilots.

The day of the interview came, and after the greetings and answers to questions they needed to make sure of (“You do know you have to move to Phoenix?” “You do know you have to stay for at least two years?”), the technical part of the interview began. It was completely different from what I expected.

First of all, they asked no questions on regulations, procedures, or aircraft systems; so most of my studying was useless. What they really wanted to probe was my judgment, and to that extent, they asked me three questions.

The first was, “You’ve landed at an accident scene, and shut the aircraft down. The med crew has returned with the patient, everyone is ready to go, the patient is not doing well, and while you’re starting the aircraft, you’re distracted by something in the back, and when you look back at your instruments, you realize that you’ve exceeded a limit on the start. Do you take off, or not?”

I wasn’t prepared for this type of question, so I stalled for time while I tried to come up with a good answer. “Secondary indications of the instruments back up the possibility that I’ve exceeded a limit?” “Yup.” “It’ll take a long time for patient ground transportation to get to the scene?” “Yup.”

Please, oh please, I thought, as I finally gave my answer. I couldn’t take off, I said, because in addition to it being a violation of the regulations to do so (it is), it wouldn’t be right to put four people (me, the med crew, and the patient) in jeopardy to arguably help one. Which was exactly right; just because EMS flying is done to try to help people doesn’t mean that it can obey fewer of the rules than other kinds of flying.

My blood pressure was just coming down from the first question when he launched into the second, and this one kicked my butt. “You’re flying along at night over the desert. The sky is covered by clouds, and you’ve just realized that there are no ground lights in your area. Do you continue flying, or turn back?” Hoo, boy. That situation itself didn’t seem to be violating any rules or standard procedures, so I couldn’t fall back on that like I had on the first question. It seemed entirely a question of judgment: was this a good idea or not? I again stalled, but longer this time. “Was there any illumination on the clouds from the lights behind me?” “No ground lights at all?” No dice; there wasn’t any ground or sky reference. Now really sweating, I again hazarded my best guess. Although I was reasonably sure about my last answer, I wasn’t nearly as much so regarding this one.

I said that I (probably, which changed to a definitely when pressed) would turn back, since at that point I was flying by reference to instruments and indicators not designed for flying in featureless conditions, and if they were to fail, I’d be toast. And I was right again, but not for the reasons that I thought.

It turns out that there was a regulation that covered this, and I should have known it, but didn’t. Helicopters in air taxi operations (of which EMS is one) aren’t allowed to fly at all at night when there’s no ground reference. Easy question, but I made it really hard.

Speaking of really hard, given the increasing difficulty of the first two, I was sure I’d get a “What’s the average velocity of an unladen sparrow?” type question next, but it was surprisingly easy. “You’re flying in marginal weather. You are comfortable with it, and it’s within the regulations, but one of your med crew is concerned. You explain that it’s within the regs, and you feel you’re safe, but she’s still uncomfortable. Do you turn back, or keep going?”

I didn’t have to stall at all here. Two years of flying in the Gulf taught me that the customer is always right; if they’re not comfortable, you turn around. Which was also right.

And that was the end of the interview; I had passed. It was by no means with flying colors: I had no real prior EMS experience, and it definitely showed in my circuitous question answering, but I had passed. And although the pressure was at least off for now, I still didn’t know if I had a slot: they had other people to interview, and would get back to me on Monday, June 16.

This presented an interesting conundrum. It turned out that I already had plans on Monday, and they didn’t include my hairdresser: while waiting for an EMS position to open up, I had actually gotten a 407 transition slot, and the course was to start Monday morning. No problem, they said: just show up for the ground school on Monday, and if you get a Phoenix slot, you’ll stop the transition, and if you don’t you can complete it and be 407 qualified.

That sounded good to them, but not to me. An aircraft transition is not cheap; if they were sending me to school on Monday, there was a good chance they wanted me to finish it, which precluded EMS. But there was always a chance, so I studied the 407 stuff they had given me, hung around, and generally tried to put it out of my mind.

Monday morning came, and they hadn’t decided yet, so I went to class, and tried to learn about 407 engine, structures, and systems. I was clearly in night-before-Christmas anticipation mode, though.

At 2 pm the call came, from the Phoenix pilot manager himself. “Well, Jonathan” he said, “We’ve interviewed everyone. Are you still interested in the position?” “I am.” (yes, yes, oh yes, I am) “And you do realize that you’ll need to move out here, and that you’ll need to stay for at least two years?” “I do.” (anything, I’ll do anything) “Then congratulations. You’ve got the job.”


This is what I wrote in my logbook. “Interview 6/13/03: got right answers, but not quickly: bad sign, sent to 407 grd school on 6/16 (worse sign), w/ ans that afternoon. 6/16/03, @2PM, EMS success!” And success it was.

I quickly told Phoenix’s answer to everyone to which I had told the saga so far, and they were unequivocally happy. It was obvious from what I had said before just how much I wanted it, but I imagine that they were just partially glad I could now shut up about it. (“If he tells me once more how close he is to exploding outright from the anticipation, I’m gonna help him out.”)

They weren’t ready for me in Training yet, so for the next few days, I did what I did before. I read (they had given me an EMS med crewmember training manual) and waited for a flight. (This had all happened while I was on duty in Louisiana, and it was still possible I could be called to do some Gulf flying.) This lasted for the rest of the hitch, which ended on Thursday, June 20. Aside from the strange glowing aura of giddiness that must have followed me around for the rest of the week, not much else happened. I did, on Tuesday, get my 2000th hour of flight time, which was not only a requirement for EMS, but also just sounds cool.

My next hitch began on Friday, June 28, and they sent me to Lafayette, LA, which is where PHI does its training. I had passed the interview, but I had quite a bit to learn, and more than one test to pass, before I could be EMS blessed.

There were three main sets of information I needed to get a handle on; EMS operations, Phoenix operations, and the aircraft, the Aerospatiale (now Eurocopter) AS350 AStar. The first I’d learn partially in Lafayette, and partially in Phoenix, and was mostly ground school. The second I’d definitely learn in Phoenix. The third they were still working on; though the other person hired was also a relatively recently-hired Gulf pilot with no prior EMS time, he did have experience in the AStar. I did not; aside from half an hour of basically holding the controls while the pilot did the flying, I’d never even been inside of one, but Training was sure they would be able to fit it all in somehow.

On Friday, we tackled EMS operations, the main difference of which is that instead of cargo or (normally healthy) passengers, you carry sick or injured people. And so we learned the importance of infection control (they might be communicable as well as injured), how to clean out an aircraft after a flight (some patients can get rather blood-and-guts messy), the importance of working as a team with your med crew (they don’t know how to fly, and you don’t know how to be a nurse or paramedic, but if don’t work as a team, you won’t last long as a pilot), how to land and take off from an accident scene without running into fire trucks or wires or blowing around, to the point of brownout, the ubiquitous desert dust, and how to fly at night. And then we took a test on it all, and passed it, and I was sent to the hotel to do some more studying.

On Saturday the 29th, I started AStar school. For those of you not familiar with it, the Astar is a single-engine, single-pilot, 3-main-rotor-bladed helicopter with seven seats: one for the pilot in the right front, and two seats in the left front, with four more behind for the passengers. It’s a comparatively quiet helicopter with excellent visibility, so is used extensively for air tours; if you go for a helicopter tour in the Grand Canyon or Hawaii, an AStar is most likely what you’ll fly in.

The first day was ground school; just as for the 407, I learned about engines, structures, systems, limitations, and emergency procedures; basically the stuff one needs to know to operate it safely. After passing another written test, I was sent to go learn how to fly the thing.

This was the part they were still working on. All of the AStars PHI had in the Gulf (where I still was) were what were known as the B2 model. Most of the ones in Phoenix were B3’s: mostly the same airframe, but with a slightly more powerful engine controlled by computers, as opposed to the electromechanical controls on the B2. (The B3 also had/has a cool LCD screen for the engine parameters, instead of the analog gauges of the B2.) What Training was hoping to do was to get me checked out in the AStar before I went to Phoenix; even though I’d be learning on a different model, they’re still very close, and the official checkout applied to both models. (By this time, it had been determined that my co-hire and I would only be in Phoenix for training from July 21st through the 29th, and a completed checkout would give all of us one less thing to worry about.)

So we started flying, on the 30th. The AStar is a pilot’s aircraft; it’s fast, powerful, takes crosswinds well, and as aircraft go, it’s quite a looker. It is not, however, easy to land or take off; it hangs right rear skid low in flight, and transitioning to and from that attitude to the skids-level attitude it has on the ground can make even a 5000 hour AStar pilot look bad. To make things more interesting, due to it having more than 2 main rotor blades, it’s susceptible to a condition called ground resonance, which is where a helicopter landed particularly bouncily can literally shake itself apart. My instructor and I flew on Sunday and Tuesday (we didn’t fly on Monday the 31st due to weather), and though we covered cruise flight, takeoffs, landings, and emergency procedures in our 3.3 hours in the aircraft, I mostly just worked on trying to get the dumb thing off the ground and back on again.

After Tuesday, the plan fell through to an extent. PHI only had two AStar-qualified instructors; one was on vacation, and the other (the one with which I had flown with so far) wasn’t able to work past Tuesday. It was therefore decided that I would put the rest of my training on hold until Phoenix. Since I still had eight more days on duty, I went back to the 206 and again studied and waited for flights. My last flight in the Gulf was on July 7, and I did the usual; I took a technician from Houma, LA to two offshore platforms and came back. But that was (and very well may be) my last flight in the Gulf of Mexico.

I had until July 20th to get my affairs in Morgantown in order, and though I made some headway, my heart wasn’t in it; I was really waiting until I knew I was proficient in the aircraft, the operation, and the city (so until after July 29th) to get everything ready for the move. So I did what every person who should be packing, making calls, and studying should do; I went on a road trip with my brother. We headed Ohio way, took in a Metallica and Friends concert in Columbus, the Air Force Museum in Dayton, and a wonderfully roller coastery day in Cedar Point. It was an unequivocal blast, and I got to hang around my brother, which I don’t get to do nearly often enough. (Thanks, Ben.)

On July 20th, I jumped on a plane to Phoenix, and checked into the hotel where my co-hire and I would be staying. The next morning, we arrived at the office of the pilot manager of Air Evac Services, Inc. (for that’s the name of PHI’s Phoenix EMS subsidiary). He gave us the training manual, and we turned to section 24, and there was the Pilot Training and Base Orientation Checklist. I had learned a lot in the last two weeks, but this checklist had 35 items, all of which we were responsible for, and none of them were a snap: PLSS Operation. Review Hospital Heliport Parking, Air to Air 123.02, blind calls. Aircraft Switch-out procedure. GPS book, keys removed. Scene Operations. And so on.

On top of all of these things that really had to be done to fly safely, we had to finish learning the aircraft (I still had a checkout to complete, and my co-hire had to learn the B3, as he had only flown the B2 previously). In our spare time, we both had to find apartments, since once training was done on the 29th, we’d fly back to our respective homes, pack up, and move everything to Phoenix.

On the 22nd, the two of us, with our instructor, started flying. The EMS version of the AStar is a bit different from the regular version; it has movable searchlights for night flying, a removable stretcher instead of the left front seats, the second from the left rear seat removed, and lots of medical equipment. It mostly flies the same, though, so that’s what we concentrated on. We flew solid for the next three days: emergency procedures, day operations, night operations, Phoenix operations, accident scene operations, and hospital operations. It’s a testament to the skill of our instructor that on the 25th, we were both signed off as AStar EMS pilots.

Our work was far from over, though; we had learned the aircraft, but we hadn’t had much time to do anything else. The two pilots who had come out before us luckily had done most of the apartment research for us, so it didn’t take that much time to find the ones we wanted. This left us most of the time to work on the checklist:

Patients use oxygen, so how do we change the O2 canisters? Or remove a seat? Or check the airworthiness of the aircraft? No problem; here’s the mechanic to show you how; item 1 on the checklist. What if we have to change medical interiors for a neonate transport? Here’s the procedure, here’s the paperwork, that’s item 11. How does the Communications Center really work? You’ll be observing it for four hours; item 24. What if the patient has a nasty, communicable bug? Like hepatitis B? Or meningitis? Or tuberculosis? Report to Occupational Health for your hep B vaccinations (first one now, second in a month, and third five months later) and tuberculosis skin test (renewed every year). Report to the Air Evac main office for your tuberculosis and meningitis mask fit; items 27 and 28.

And finally; we’ve learned the aircraft, learned the area, and learned the procedures. How do we put all this together? Ride-alongs. Three accident scene calls required. Report to your base. Item 25.

We didn’t have time to complete the checklist; there was still a ride-along or two to complete, some paperwork needed to be finished up, and some procedures still needed to be learned, but on the July 30th we left Phoenix, and when we came back, it would be with our stuff, and we would be reporting for duty, soon to be bona-fide EMS pilots.

I and my car had to be in Phoenix, with my stuff packed and on the way, by August 11th, my first day of work. (Thankfully, PHI not only paid for almost all of these cross-country plane tickets, but also my moving expenses, and even sent a moving truck to move my stuff.) This was the plan: I’d arrive back in WV on July 30th, and would have two days to pack. On August 2nd, I’d jump on a plane to New Orleans (where I kept my car, to commute to and from the airport to the Gulf Coast bases). Hopefully, this would give me enough time to drive me and the car from New Orleans to Phoenix by the 6th, because on the 7th, I was to fly back to WV to tape a wedding. My last ticket was to leave Pittsburgh on the 10th, arriving that night in Phoenix.

And, amazingly enough, it all worked out. My folks, brother, and I (thanks Mom, Charlie, and Ben) got all my stuff in boxes and/or ready for the movers. The moving truck arrived on the 1st, and picked up everything. (They even plastic-wrapped my couch so as not to scuff it; how can you beat that?) I landed in New Orleans on August 2nd, drove to Seguin, TX (505 miles) by that night, slept in my car in a truck stop, drove 850 (!) miles on the 3rd, stayed with a friend in Tucson (thanks again, Chris and Renee), and arrived in Phoenix on the 4th.

I completed some more Checklist items until the 6th, and then jumped on the plane to Pittsburgh to tape the wedding, taped it, reestablished contact with some great friends, then blasted off back to Phoenix.

On Monday, August 11, I reported to work at my base, Air Evac 3 (also the name of my helicopter), at the Glendale, Arizona airport. I still had four more days of training to do, though; completing the last few items on the Checklist, learning about the Glendale area, and getting the final accident scene call ride-alongs I needed. So. Viewing of Safe Lifting Video. 5 hours local area orientation. Cancelled and Refused Flight Log.

By Thursday evening, it was finished. The items had been checked, the manuals had been read, the accident scene flights had been observed, and I had even flown a flight or two with the regular pilot riding along in the back. After two months, 7.7 AStar flight hours, and heaps of reading later, it was time to turn me loose.

On August 11, I got up, got dressed, and drove to the airport. I checked the weather and the airspace, looked over the helicopter, briefed my med crew, and waited for my first call. And when that first solo flight came, it was exactly like most EMS flights everywhere, but it was also exactly the kind of flight I thought about when I looked up as a kid and thought: that’s what I want to do with my life.

It came late that morning. I affirmed the call, went out to the aircraft, unplugged the ground power cord and the air conditioner, looked over the aircraft one last time, got in, and started it up. The med crew came out and jumped in. I called the (air traffic control) tower, made sure the aircraft was running properly, and took off. We flew to the accident scene (one car had T-boned another at a busy intersection, and a girl in the T-boned side needed to be flown), circled the landing area to check for wires and obstructions, found a good place to land, and did so. The med crew jumped out, made sure the patient was stabilized, brought her to the helicopter, got her inside, and made sure that she and they were ready for takeoff. I made sure the aircraft was ready, and we took off, 30 feet straight up into the sky. I nosed it over, and we flew to the local major trauma center. I landed at the hospital helipad, and shut down the aircraft. The security guard came out, and the med crew and I helped unload the patient. After making sure the aircraft was in good shape, I went downstairs to the ER, and watched the doctors and nurses and med crew diagnose (she had a bad multiple break in her upper leg bone) the girl, and prepare her for surgery. When my med crew was satisfied that the paperwork was done, and that the patient had been properly handed off, we went back up to the helicopter, started it up, and flew back to our base. I landed, shut down the aircraft, hooked up the air conditioner and ground power supply, looked it over, and went back inside to wait for the next call.

And that’s how I became an EMS helicopter pilot.

I’ve been a solo EMS pilot for seven work days now, and I’ve done eight flights in that time. I haven’t been able to do much so far except unpack and work, but I’m moved in now, the weather will get cooler soon, and I’ll settle into my new job. I will have been here for at least the next two years (about 1 year and 11 months, now), but I don’t think it’ll be anything like drudgery. There’ll be new friends to make, and mountains to hike, and flights to make.

And one guy who’s still amazed he can wake up and do the job he’s always wanted to.