Flying the lonely skies
September 12, 2001
Steamboat Springs — There weren’t many aircraft in the skies over Colorado at midday Wednesday.
In fact, there were only three at 12:30 p.m.
But Federal Aviation Administration officials gave clearance for the evacuation of two different cardiac patients by air from Steamboat Springs to Front Range hospitals that afternoon.
The U.S. military was controlling American air space in the wake of Tuesday’s terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
But even during national emergencies, there are patients at rural hospitals like Yampa Valley Medical Center who are in life-threatening situations and need the resources only available at larger hospitals.
A Cessna 421-C operated as an air ambulance by Mountain Flight Service departed Steamboat Springs Airport at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesday with cardiac patient Doris Branyon of Virginia on board.
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The plane was headed for Fort Collins Downtown Airport and the patient was expected to be transferred to Poudre Valley Hospital.
The second patient, whose identity was not available, was being “packaged” for transport by helicopter from the heliport at Yampa Valley Medical Center to Porter Hospital in Denver at about 1:55 p.m.
Hospital spokeswoman Bonnie Boylan said the helicopter was summoned from Greeley Airlines because the Mountain Flight Service aircraft based in Steamboat was still involved in the first evacuation.
A nursing supervisor at Poudre Valley said Branyon had been admitted to the hospital and was in “good” condition as of 6 p.m.
Pilot Stan Churches said aside from having to seek FAA permission to take off, and the fact that his radio was eerily silent during the 40-minute trip, the flight was ordinary.
“The other day I flew over there and (air traffic control) barely had time to talk to me. I flew over there today and I didn’t hear a thing,” Churches said.
Churches said his twin-engine airplane, one other medical evacuation flight and a single military plane were the only aircraft aloft over Colorado at the time. He was never contacted by a military pilot, he said.
In addition to himself and the patient, Churches was accompanied on the flight by the patient’s husband, a registered nurse and an EMT.
Bob Maddox of Mountain Flight Service said he had made calls to the FAA on Tuesday, during the height of the terrorist crisis, to find out if his company would be able to airlift emergency medical patients to Denver hospitals. The answer he received was unsettling.
“They said ‘no,’ only in the most dire of situations,” Maddox said.
By Wednesday, the FAA’s stance had moderated, and Maddox said he felt relieved that his business would be able to offer its essential service.
“Everyone who goes out on our airplane is in a dire emergency,” Maddox said. “We haven’t taken anyone golfing yet.”
Mountain Flight Service transports about 125 patients a year, so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary for the need of two patient transports to arise on Wednesday. Most of the patients flown by Maddox’ company are either cardiac patients, have suffered serious head injuries or have particularly bad orthopedic injuries, he said.
On Wednesday, Maddox said, the FAA was requiring a two-hour advance notice of a desired medical evacuation, or “life guard,” flight. The request was made through Denver Flight Service, the air traffic control tower in Longmont. Denver Flight Service in turn pass the request on to the FAA in Washington, D.C., for approval.
Boylan said in the case of both flights, the FAA required names and security numbers of all person on board the aircraft before they gave permission for the flights.
Maddox said pilots routinely request an identifying transponder code from Denver Center soon after takeoff. In this case, they had to request the code before takeoff. The code serves as an identifying mark on radar screens for air traffic controllers.
“The code was passed along to the military and to NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) in Colorado Springs so they’d know it was just us,” Maddox said.
Maddox said the flight went uneventfully and Churches was allowed to return to Steamboat a little after 2 p.m., again classified as a “life guard” flight.
Churches is relatively new to Mountain Flight Service. He has about 5,000 hours in multiengine aircraft, after spending two years flying air ambulance flights more than a decade ago and spending most of the past dozen years flying corporate jets.