Life Flight. The familiar yellow and green helicopter flying low over the city of Missoula is an iconic symbol of safety and protection for anyone in medical distress, from a car accident on a remote highway to a sudden heart attack where speed is of the essence.

Today, the Life Flight helicopter is secured on the roof of St. Patrick Hospital in downtown, Missoula. This AS 350 B-3 American Eurostar, known as an A-Star, is a $3 million dollar flying emergency room, and can be ready at a moment's notice with a crew stationed just inside their seventh floor quarters. But, the Life Flight story actually started over 30 years ago.

Larry Peterman is the chief flight nurse for Life Flight.

"The first flight was in early 1981," Peterman said on Tuesday. "That was the old St. Pat's, where we had a little landing pad down by the river, and we'd have to come either in a tunnel under Broadway, or even push the gurney right across Broadway, where we had to hold up traffic, and that was the old way. We've had several helicopters since then, and in 1989, the fixed-wing airplane came along, and in 2010, we added a new ground transport unit, so now we have three means of transporting patients."

Peterman described the relationship between Metro Aviation and Life Flight.

"Metro Aviation is our vendor, and they have supplied the pilots, the mechanics and the maintenance on our aircraft for about 13 years now," Peterman said. "Within Life Flight the nurses and the paramedics are St. Pat's employees. Plus, we own our helicopter here at St. Pat's, and Metro owns the fixed-wings, and we lease them from Metro Aviation."

Flight nurse John Indrehus said the Life Flight helicopter is the most visible aspect of their operations, but the fixed wing aircraft are the real work horses of the operation. A King Air F-90 is housed in a special Life Flight hangar at the Missoula International Airport, complete with it's own refueling station, so that the aircraft can be refueled as quickly as possible.

"St. Pat's and Metro Aviation lease this hangar, where we keep our fixed wing aircraft," Indrehus said. "The lion's share of all of the flights that Life Flight does are with our fixed-wing aircraft. The average over the last few years is about 1,500 flights a year. About 1,000 of those are with our fixed-wing aircraft, they're the unsung heroes with Life Flight. Our helicopter is the most visible part of the operation, but the fixed wing aircraft do most of the heavy lifting."

photo by Peter Christian

Indrehus said each transport unit has it's specific use in transporting patients.

"The helicopter serves the community best within about a 150 mile radius, while the fixed-wing does very well for up to 1,000 miles," Inrehus said. "We can make it to Rochester, (the home of the Mayo Clinic) without refueling, or can be in Seattle to deliver a patient to Harborview Medical Center in less than two hours. Great distance, all weather, and speed are what the fixed-wing do best for us."

Indrehus said any Life Flight mission begins in the St. Patrick Hospital emergency room.

"When a patient request for transport comes in, we have a case manager who initially fields the call, and determines where the patient will need to end up, and that's how things get started," Indrehus said.

The helicopter itself is fully equipped with a wide range of life-saving equipment.

"This helicopter is designed to handle all kinds of emergencies," Indrehus said. "Whether it's an airway breathing issue or a cardiovascular problem, we carry all the front-line cardiac drugs, so we feel quite comfortable going to any trauma scene or inter-facility transfer with this set-up right here."

Peterman said that Life Flight also carries patients for Community Medical Center.

"As of mid-August of last year, we have formed a partnership with Community Medical Center where Life Flight is doing all the flying for both hospitals now," Peterman said. "I think its working out pretty well, between the helicopter and the fixed-wing and the ground ambulance we can move a lot of patients."

Peterman said every member of the crew feels lucky to be a part of the Life Flight team.

"Its a privilege to do this type of work," Peterman said. "You really feel like you're helping folks. You can see often very quickly the results of your work. We bring them in and most people get better and we can visit with them later on, so its very gratifying to have this kind of work."

 Chief Flight Nurse Larry Peterman