When flight nurse Elisabeth Abel and paramedic Becky Sproul first flew in a CareFlight helicopter with Esther Babcock on Dec. 10, they knew something was different.
That day in Montrose was the first time a crew was made up entirely of women in CareFlight’s 40-year history. Babcock also is the first female pilot in the organization’s history. But that was not all that was different.
“We realized Esther does fly different as a girl,” Abel said. “She’s super smooth.”
Sproul said each of the four helicopter pilots who fly for CareFlight, an air transport medical assistance service, have their own style. Some of the pilots with military backgrounds hit the ground at a slightly higher rate of speed than some of the pilots with a civilian background. But Sproul noticed Babcock is even smoother than most.
“On her first day, we just laughed. You couldn’t tell we’d landed,” Sproul said. “It was just this smooth little thing. It really set the bar.”
Babcock’s official hiring earlier in December made the first all-female crew possible, but Sproul also happens to be the only female paramedic on the rotating crew.
Since Dec. 10, there have been more shifts with all- female crews consisting of Babcock, Sproul and Abel or another female flight nurse. When it happens, they call it the “Broad Squad.”
The CareFlight family is a big one with helicopter bases in Montrose and Rifle that serve much of western Colorado, including St. Mary’s Medical Center, and eastern Utah. There also is a fixed-wing plane based out of the Grand Junction Regional Airport. All three are staffed 24/7.
In Montrose, the team is set up in a house just outside Montrose Memorial Hospital. Three team members — a pilot, flight nurse and paramedic — are on call and can be in the air in 10 minutes when needed.
There are 14 nurses, 15 medics and four pilots who rotate in and out. Nurses and paramedics work two 24-hour shifts per week. Pilots work 12-hour shifts, seven days in row before getting seven days off.
“It’s a lot, but it’s a really great job,” said Abel, who also is the CareFlight base manager in Montrose.
CareFlight is part of the Air Methods program, which started at St. Mary’s, according to Kathy Shoemaker, chief flight nurse for SCL Health St. Mary’s.
Air Methods now boasts 664 aircraft and 4,647 employees worldwide. CareFlight was previously known as St. Mary’s AirLife prior to 2000.
The first all-female crew received a lot of notoriety after a Facebook post called attention to the historic shift in December.
Abel is hopeful it will inspire young girls to go after the things they want and not be deterred by industries that traditionally have been male-dominated.
“I think it can be inspirational for girls,” she said.
MEET THE CREW
Becky Sproul, paramedic
Sproul has an extensive background as a paramedic, but when she joined CareFlight about a year and a half ago, it was her first time on a flight crew.
Sproul started in Georgetown and worked in Denver for about 15 years before moving to more rural areas.
“It’s almost as though I’m doing something entirely new and it’s proved to be everything I hoped it would be,” Sproul said of joining CareFlight. She is the only female paramedic with the organization.
Sproul was surprised by all the attention she, Babcock and Abel have received as the first all-female flight crew for CareFlight, but is glad to spread the word about medical flight crews.
“I would be happy to be an inspiration for folks who would be nervous getting into the field in general,” she said. “Mostly, I’m just happy to be here and doing what I’m doing.”
Esther Babcock, pilot
This is Babcock’s first foray into the medical-flight field. She spent most of the past decade flying helicopter tours for tourists seven or eight hours a day in places such as Nevada, Hawaii, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
With CareFlight, she’s up in the air a lot less than with those prior jobs, but she likes having colleagues aboard instead of a group of people to entertain.
“It’s my first job having a crew atmosphere. It’s really cool,” she said. “It’s been an adventure.”
Babcock first dreamed of becoming a fighter pilot, but after attending college, she decided to go into helicopters.
She’s no stranger to being the only female pilot, either. Of the five organizations she has flown with professionally, she has been the only female pilot at four of them. Even in her training with Air Methods, she was the only woman in a class of about 40.
She’s happy to break some barriers and show young girls they can become pilots.
“Getting the word out there that it’s possible is cool,” she said. “I’m really happy to be here. It’s fun and it’s different.”
Since she was hired in December, there haven’t been too many calls during Babcock’s shifts at CareFlight, but she was sure that will change. Mainly she’s flown patients from smaller care centers to larger facilities, which is one of the main functions of the CareFlight crew.
The crew also is dispatched to critical scenes where there a patient who need to be airlifted to a hospital and to search and assist various situations.
Elisabeth Abel, flight nurse
For Abel, inspiration to join a flight crew came when a medical helicopter landed at her high school in Pittsburgh. She went home and told her mother she wanted to be part of a crew like that.
Her mother didn’t think Abel would follow through, but 10 years later, she was part of a medical flight crew in Chicago.
She spent six years as a nurse before starting on a flight crew and later had a long stint in Denver before relocating to Montrose.
Abel particularly likes the challenge of addressing emergency situations in remote areas.
“Our patients are the sickest of the sick. It can be challenging to get them into a good place to get them in the helicopter. I love that,” she said.