If you’ve spent any time on McKinney roadways, you’ve no doubt experienced the odd — and, thankfully, rare – combination of worry, thrill, concern and curiosity when a helicopter arrives to ferry a critically injured accident victim to a hospital.

It’s there with the noble purpose of doing good, of course, but the appearance of something that should be in the air can be a little unnerving when it’s landing, say, just feet away in a parking lot or street intersection.

Unlike the common roadway ambulance, the use of helicopters and planes to transport patients is relatively new.

Although the first air ambulance service was established in Australia’s outback in 1928 (and still operates as that nation’s Royal Flying Doctor Service), the practice of using aircraft to transport the injured in America is more recent.

In 1947, a company called Schaefer Air Service was established in Los Angeles to move ill patients from site to site, but for the next two decades air ambulance systems remained just that: transportation only. It wasn’t until 1969, during the Vietnam War, that the combination of helicopters and specially trained paramedics led statisticians to conclude that servicemen wounded in battle had better rates of survival than critically injured motorists on California freeways.

This led to the world’s first experiments with civilian paramedics and, in 1972, America’s first civilian air medical service began operation with a single Alouette III helicopter based at St. Anthony Central Hospital in Denver.

Today there are approximately a half million medically related transports by plane and helicopter in the United States annually.

Most medical air transport in McKinney attends to traffic accidents, but flights are also made to assist victims of violence or domestic and workplace accidents.

Many patients are transported to Medical Center of McKinney but, as Dr. Tim Hartman, the hospital’s Director of Emergency Medical Services explains, “Sometimes patients need to be flown directly south to Baylor, Plano Medical, Parkland, or elsewhere.”

Many injuries can be treated here, but sometimes tertiary care (i.e., higher level treatment) is required. In fact, although the helipad at Medical Center of McKinney sees daily use, just as many flights leave the site and go on for treatment elsewhere after initial treatment is provided.

Needless to say, the operative word in medical helicopter services is “communication.”

Each hospital knows what the others specialize in, and care is taken to ensure that patients needing quick-response help go to the appropriate location.

McKinney has a dialysis center, for example, that can readily handle situations of this need, but Parkland/Children’s Medical Center is known for its extraordinary burn unit and children’s care. (In fact, Parkland and Baylor University Medical Center are the only two Level 1 trauma care centers in Dallas).

The decision to call a helicopter for an illness or to the scene of an accident is made, in most cases, by the leader on the ground – usually the ranking department commander on scene with EMS.

The advantages of an air ambulance are, of course, the ability to jump over traffic or other obstacles, and sheer speed. Disadvantages include cost and the fact that some risk is always involved with the operation. Surprisingly, finding a spot is rarely a problem.

As Dr. Hartman explains, “Even in a crowded city it’s usually pretty easy. The EMS teams and captains know the city so well that if there is no landing zone at the immediate scene they can secure one nearby and have police clear an area ahead of time so an ambulance can transport a patient the short distance between the scene and the copter.”

A concern most people have is the cost involved in emergency air transport. Yes, it IS expensive (for example, transporting a patient from McKinney to Parkland in Dallas can be as high as $10,000), and that’s because so much more goes into the cost than simply the fuel. For example, a crew must be on standby, around the clock, and that includes not only a pilot but ground support, critical care paramedics, RNs, and sometimes a specialist depending on the nature of the incident.

However, “Nobody asks insurance questions during an emergency,” says Dr. Hartman, “It’s all about the severity of the situation, and that’s how the decision is made.”

In many ways, an emergency flight is similar to a visit to the emergency room: the overriding goal is to deal with the medical problem. Certain injuries or accidents can serve as crucial factors when considering whether to call for air support, including unconsciousness or a fall of over ten feet.

Several companies serve area hospitals with helicopter services, and though CareFlite is the best known (in fact, in D/FW, its name has practically become a general term used to describe medical helicopters) the majority of work in McKinney done is by PHI, Inc. Primarily a shuttle for people and equipment in the oil & gas industry, PHI. Air Medical is a large unit of PHI, Inc., and works a unit out of McKinney Regional Airport. If you see a black and yellow helicopter over McKinney, chances are good it’s a PHI copter.

Another air ambulance less familiar to the general public are regular fixed-wing aircraft modified to serve patients who aren’t in moment-to-moment critical danger but who are medically fragile and need specialized care in another city, or who wish to be nearer to family and friends (in this case, often at the end of life or in situations making flight on standard airlines difficult).

In McKinney, a leading company of this type is Arizona-based Angel MedFlight, which provides medically configured Learjets.

A critical care flight nurse and paramedic, along with other specialists as necessary, are by the patient’s side every moment both on the ground and in the air.

In most cases the family or individual taking the flight is responsible for payment but, as Director of Business Development Kimberly Halloran explains, “We work hard with insurance companies and case managers whenever patient coverage can provide assistance, which is most common when one needs emergency medical transport to another city or finds few other options for transferring.”

Angel MedFlight is truly a worldwide air medical service and, if needed, can fly McKinney patients to or from virtually anywhere in the world. The firm recently flew a patient over 17,000 miles, from Saudi Arabia to Kirkland, Washington.

We so often think of aircraft as something fun – especially when taking a vacation – or as a necessity for getting work done. But helicopters and planes are useful for so much more, and McKinney is fortunate to have ready access to both.

There’s a good reason we find these types of medical aircraft patient coverage can provide assistance, which is most common when one needs emergency medical transport to another city or finds few other options for transferring.

Angel MedFlight is truly a worldwide air medical service and, if needed, can fly McKinney patients in the skies over our city: in the blink of an eye, they can very literally become our lifesavers. 

About the author: Christopher Foster is a writer and photographer living in McKinney.