As a combat veteran in the Navy’s En Route Care program, an air transport nurse for Duke and Vanderbilt’s Life Flight networks, and a full-time critical care air transport instructor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, I can attest firsthand to the life-saving impact of smaller aircraft, or general aviation. That’s why I’m proud to be part of a program at Alabama-Huntsville that starting this year, has made a commitment to inspiring the next generation of air transport nurses and pilots by offering a Critical Care Transport Nurse course.
The fact is, most people don’t realize the role that general aviation and flight nurses have in emergency healthcare. I have seen firsthand how general aviation is often the only way to rapidly provide advanced medical care for patients that ground transportation cannot fulfill. In these cases, when patients experience medical emergencies — like a car accident or a heart attack — every second matters. General aviation allows us to transport these patients to nearby medical centers in a matter of 15-30 minutes as opposed to the several hours it could take in traffic-ridden roads.
In addition, medical centers in rural areas do not always have the capacity to offer the right services for their patients. Medevac flights are extremely vital in transporting these patients to nearby hospitals in Huntsville, Birmingham, and Vanderbilt where they can get the care that they need. These aircraft also carry the necessary medical tools that an air transport nurse needs when performing the emergency care to stabilize the patient. Without access to air medical services, these trauma patients simply would not survive their injuries.
For example, medical flights are life-saving for some of our most vulnerable populations in Northern Alabama. Just ask Jason Peterson, who’s a Flight Nurse for Children’s of Alabama’s Critical Care Transport Department. His department handles over 1,000 transports a year exclusively for children seeking emergency and specialized care. Many of his trips take him to hospitals in Huntsville, Athens, Florence, Decatur and others for pediatric patients that need care that only Children’s of Alabama in Birmingham can provide. As one of the largest pediatric medical facilities in the country, Children’s of Alabama saves the lives of children throughout the state and the country, but many of those critical care operations would not be made possible without general aviation.
I am routinely reminded of the life-saving role general aviation plays every hurricane season. As Hurricane Michael ripped through the Gulf Coast and the Florida Panhandle, some of our coastal communities witnessed the worst conditions in history. According to the Alabama Forestry Commission, over 40,000 forested acres were destroyed in the hurricane, which accounts for an estimated $20 million in timber. Communities in the Gulf region are still recovering. Despite this devastation, general aviation brings people together in the best way possible. Relief organizations like Operation Airdrop use general aviation aircraft to send supplies to disaster communities that are cutoff from other means of transportation. Operating out of the Gainesville Regional Airport in Florida, Operation Airdrop was able to carry more than 50,000 pounds of supplies using small aircraft to communities along the coast. This is just one example of dozens of groups that use general aviation to perform relief operations to our regions devastated disaster areas.
So much of the conversation around aviation has to do with commercial travel, but there are so many ways that general aviation serves our communities. My career as an air transport nurse has given me the opportunity to experience the side of the industry that is overlooked. Across the country, small and medium-sized airports support general aviation aircraft that provide access to medical services, disaster relief programs, business development opportunities and industry growth to communities that need it the most. With those impacts in mind, it is more important than ever to protect the access that this vital infrastructure thrives in.
Ron Bolen is a clinical instructor at Alabama-Huntsville.