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By Rose Hoban

Dozens of families came out to the airport in Manteo on Saturday for an up-close look at Dare County’s newest medevac helicopter and to remember two fallen Dare Medflight members.

Kids and adults climbed aboard the new chopper, a H145 Airbus purchased in 2015.

Dare Medflight Air Crew Chief Stephen Burritt puts on his helmet in preparation for going out on a flight to retrieve a cardiac patient. The new helicopter, an Airbus H 145 is one of only a handful of such advanced helicopters in the U.S. and the only one kitted out to be a medevac helicopter. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

“This gives [the public] an opportunity to come out, get close with the helicopter, climb into it, see the things, touch the things, talk with the paramedics, talk with the pilots, the mechanics and really see how they live when they’re not on an emergency incident,” said Chief Jennie Collins.

Usually, residents only see the life flight helicopters as they buzz overhead, or perhaps from a distance when they’re picking up a patient, Collins said.

As if on cue, a call to transport a patient who had been revived after a heart attack came about halfway through the morning event. A crew of paramedics and pilots pulled on their flight suits and helmets and climbed aboard the Airbus.

Dare Medflight paramedic Kimberly Atwell shows Ezechiel Kraw around the service’s older helicopter, a BK 117. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

Visitors were herded out of the hangar and beyond the chain-link fence and told to watch their eyes. Rotors spun as the helicopter prepared for takeoff and when it lifted off the ground, a strong breeze sent flying grass, rocks and leaves to pelt the observers.

Nonetheless, the crowd applauded as the helicopter peeled away.

Serious business

Dare County spent more than $9 million to buy the new helicopter, which replaced the old one, a 1986-model BK 117. Chief pilot Chad Jones compared flying the new machine to driving a late model car after years of driving an old pickup.

“Think of airbags, antilock brakes, all those things, they translate into the aviation world,” he said. “We have 4-axis autopilot, we have a glass cockpit, much better engine management, we have a lot more power if one engine fails.”

Chief pilot Chad Jones holds a friend’s baby in the Medflight hanger, while Chief Jennie Collins and Deputy Chief George Farah look on. Photo credit: Rose Hoban

He also said that the new helicopter has something called a Terrain Awareness Warning System, which alerts pilots to obstructions they might not see. Jones said had this feature been on the Dare Medflight that crashed in 1989, pilot CC Duvall and paramedic Stephanie Willoughby would still be alive.

The two were killed when their chopper hit an unlit cellular tower as they flew back from dropping a patient at the hospital in Norfolk, VA. Sunday was the anniversary of the crash.

Jones said the TAWS system sends up an alert in a similar situation.

“It’d be like, ‘Warning, obstacle! Warning, obstacle!’” he said. “It’s quite an investment for the county to do and invest in but it really does make us safer. It’s worth the expense.”

Survivability

Marielle Silk, a nurse practitioner who works at Outer Banks Hospital came along with her husband and two kids Jack, 4, and Mikayla, 2. “I see the helicopters landing at the hospital from my office window,” she said.

It could take hours for an emergency patient to get off one of the long and skinny barrier islands of the Outer Banks, especially on a holiday weekend in the summer when the number of people in Dare County increases ten-fold from the year-round population of about 35,000, said Collins.

“Being able to have this type of service that can rapidly treat somebody without having to wait for the other programs that are a good distance away from us… definitely impacts survivability for patients,” she said.

The Outer Banks Hospital has 21 beds and a 17-bed emergency service. Older retirees on the islands keep the hospital humming, even during winter months. But if a patient needs advanced cardiac, stroke or trauma care, they need to get off the island.

The Dare Medflight service does about 350 such flights per year, said Deputy Chief George Farah.

Thank you notes from grateful patients decorate the whiteboard in the Dare Medflight hangar. Photo credit: Elizabeth Page

“It fluctuates a lot because of summer versus wintertime,” he said. “We typically go to Norfolk General first, it’s closer, unless we happen to be at Hatteras, and then it’s a tossup depending on weather conditions as to which direction we might go.”

The Emergency Medical Service also has seven ambulance stations throughout the Outer Banks to respond to incidents. The helicopter becomes a necessity not just to get patients off the island, but because on crowded summer weekends, traffic can slow ground transport to the local hospital to a crawl.

The price of those flights are not cheap.

“We have a flat rate of about $12,500,” Farah said. “And then it’s a per mile rate after that, per nautical mile. If you go from here to Norfolk, it’s maybe a $16,000 bill.

He said most flights wind up costing between $15,000 and $17,000. When asked what happens if someone can’t pay, Farah shook his head.

One of the pilots’ wives made treats for the folks who came out to the Dare Medflight open house Saturday in Manteo.

“We try to work something out with them, but I’m not going to tell you we have a 100 percent collection rate,” he said.

“We do bill Medicaid,” Collins chimed in.

 

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...