Forty years ago, Jacksonville’s preeminent air ambulance, Life Flight, had an auspicious debut.
Four minutes after it officially went into service on Sunday, Aug. 3, 1980, the French-built, single-engine helicopter took off from its blue landing pad at Baptist Medical Center Jacksonville to airlift a Fernandina Beach man who had fallen into a vat of corrosive liquid. Later that same day, during the official dedication ceremony for the five-passenger helicopter, Life Flight was dispatched to its second mission; transporting a Mayport-based sailor severely injured in a diving accident.
During its first year of operation, Life Flight flew 641 medical missions, with more than half of its patients being flown directly to area emergency centers.
Now in its 40th year of continuous service, Life Flight has safely transported more than 25,000 adult and pediatric patients in the Northeast Florida and Southeast Georgia region, serving all five Baptist Health hospitals and three of its four Baptist/Wolfson Children’s Hospital satellite emergency departments.
Each day, a Life Flight pilot conducts a thorough shift briefing with the on-duty medical crew, discussing weather, logistics, operations, and, most importantly, safety.
“When Life Flight first started at Baptist Medical Center it was cutting edge,” said Dr. Richard Stromberg, an emergency medicine specialist at Wolfson Children’s Hospital and Life Flight’s third medical director. “Life Flight’s establishment marked an enormous change in how certain kinds of emergencies were handled because we suddenly had very rapid transport.”
When it debuted in 1980, Life Flight was the second air ambulance in the state and one of only 40 in the nation. Richard Malone, Baptist Medical Center’s executive director at the time, was instrumental in getting Jacksonville’s inaugural air ambulance service off the ground.
Before coming to Baptist in 1977, Malone was involved in a trail-blazing hospital-based helicopter project sponsored by the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Life Flight was the first rotor-wing air ambulance in the state accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems (CAMTS) and the first in Jacksonville to carry blood products.
“CAMTS accreditation is highly regarded in the air medical industry and represents the hard work of the entire Life Flight staff, crew members, pilots, mechanics, leadership and medical directors,” said Dr. Brad Elias, Life Flight’s current medical director and an emergency medicine physician at Baptist Jacksonville.
“What that means to the community is that we are using the best evidence-based practices to care for our patients in the air and to rapidly get them to the next level of care that they need.”
Today, Baptist Health contracts its emergency air medical transport services through Air Methods Corp., the largest provider of air medical transport services in the United States. Life Flight 1, the latest in a long line of medical helicopters that have called Baptist Health home, has been stationed at Baptist Medical Center South since 2017.
Life Flight employs four Life Flight pilots, eight flight nurses and paramedics, a mechanic and a medical director.
“We fly trauma and medical patients from the scene to the hospital, or hospital to hospital transfers,” said Dane Taylor, FP-C, senior clinical base supervisor for Air Methods Jacksonville and a senior flight paramedic for Life Flight since 2007. “Medical calls range from heart attacks and strokes to high-risk pregnancy complications. We never know what the day will bring and nothing we do is routine.”
Life Flight 1, a Bell 407GX, flies within a 150 nautical-mile radius of Jacksonville and carries one patient. The standard crew configuration is one pilot, one flight nurse, and one flight paramedic. The aircraft is outfitted as a self-contained critical care unit and contains a hook-up to an incubator for transporting newborns and sick babies with Kids Kare’s Neonatal and Pediatric Transport Teams, a service of Wolfson Children's Hospital.
Sam Young, PMD, manager of EMS Support and System Emergency Preparedness for Baptist Health and a former paramedic, flew on several different Life Flight helicopters over the years.
“The original Life Flight was a single-engine helicopter. Then we transitioned to a series of twin-engine models,” said Young, who flew on and off from 1985 to 2001. “It was an honor to serve aboard Life Flight and a very rewarding experience.”
“The medical care rendered by the Life Flight crew is comparable to that of any Intensive Care Unit,” added Dr. Elias, who has served as Life Flight’s medical director for more than a dozen years.
“Whether it’s a complex medical patient or a severely injured trauma patient, Life Flight nurses and paramedics rise to the challenge.”