Who has ever wanted to fly inside a helicopter? Everyone? Sounds about right. But what about actually flying one? That’s exactly what my friend Dede Murawsky does! She is a veteran of both the U.S. Air Force and U.S. Army, former commercial airline pilot, and currently a medevac helicopter pilot in Memphis, TN! I recently had a chance to chat her up and ask all my burning questions about what it’s like to be a medical helicopter pilot. Give it a read and comment with more of your questions below! I might just add them to the post!
1. Tell us about your background! How did you get started flying helicopters?
I always wanted to be around airplanes, so I joined the Air Force right out of high school to go overseas and be around planes. The closest I got to overseas was Hawaii (which the military considers “overseas,” even though it’s a state), and I didn’t fly anything in the Air Force! I actually didn’t start flying until I switched branches and joined the Army. They were short on pilots, and all Army pilots start on helicopters, so that’s what I did.
More here: Helicopter Tour of Maui and Molokai
2. How did you go from the military to flying medevac helicopters?
I loved my time in the Army, but I learned to fly the Kiowa Warrior helicopter, which was being retired about the same time my obligation with the Army was up. So I decided to get out then and do some other things. I got a job flying for a medevac company in Dublin, Georgia, and I stayed in that job for about a year. After that, I took a break to live in Europe, then came back to the States to learn how to fly commercial airplanes. Then when COVID happened, I decided to go back to medevac flying for a while. Now I’m based in Memphis!
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3. What’s a typical day like for you? Is it action-packed and high-drama every second?
It’s a lot of waiting! The crew consists of a pilot, registered nurse (RN), and paramedic for adult patientss; pilot, RN, respiratory therapist, and paramedic for pediatric patients. We do 12-hour shifts together, and actually there’s a lot to do between calls. We have a whole list of tasks to accomplish during a shift, such as:
- Keeping current on inspections and airworthiness (which is a lot of paperwork)
- Weight and balance checks so we know how much fuel we need and how much weight we can carry
- Pre-flight checks (like checking oxygen, fuel, oils, etc.)
- Washing the helicopter to keep her beautiful
- Crew briefing; we always have a crew of three or four; the medical crew briefs me (the pilot) about which hospitals are accepting new patients and which are too full or not accepting patient transfers or trauma patients, etc.
While we’re doing all of that, we’re literally waiting for a red phone to ring. We get our calls from a dispatcher who is fielding calls from 911, ambulances on their way to a scene, police, the fire department, or sometimes the people at the scene.
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4. Did you have to take any medical training or get medical certifications?
Nope! They actually don’t want the pilot to help very much, because if something happens and I get hurt, I can’t fly. And if I can’t fly, I can’t take the patient to the hospital. Sometimes I want to help or do something, but I know it’s really important to preserve the pilot for everyone’s well-being and safety overall.
More here: What to Do If You Get Sick on Travel
5. When is a helicopter called instead of an ambulance?
We are never called instead of an ambulance. Even if we’re the ones who need to transport the patient, we still need a crew on the ground to help us land. We also need the crew on the ground to determine if the patient is even stable enough to fly.
If they think there’s a good chance the patient will need a medevac, they’ll go ahead and send for us because it’s better if we’re already on our way, rather than waiting until they know for sure and then leaving. Sometimes it comes down to minutes. Occasionally, we’ll get called to a scene and then have to fly back before we even get there because they were able to handle everything on the ground.
6. How do you get patients into the helicopter? Do you have a rope and a crank to pull them up?
We always land! If we can’t get to them without landing, then the ambulance on the ground will bring them to us where we can land. For instance, if a crash site is too close to telephone or electrical wires, or the site is too close to a lot of tree limbs, we work with the first responders on the ground to find a safe place for us to land. Sometimes they have to block off the road or do a little legwork to make sure we’re safe and that an unsuspecting car doesn’t drive right through where we’re trying to set ourselves down.
Sometimes, though, the team on the ground doesn’t necessarily know what we need and don’t need to land. In that case, since we literally have the view from the air, sometimes I can tell them a location so they can bring the patient to us. For instance, if it’s a Thursday morning, and there’s a church parking lot a mile away from the site, it’s probably vacant, and a low risk for cars or other people coming in and out. That’s a better place to land than on a two-lane road with telephone poles on either side.
7. What equipment do you have in the helicopter?
We have everything an ambulance has, and then some!
- All blood types
- One of everything we might need for trauma patients
- Waterproof backpack so all equipment is safe wherever we are
- Ultrasound machine (to find internal bleeding or other non-visible injuries)
- Balloon pumps for hearts
- A stretcher
- A “sled,” which can be locked into place to keep the patient from moving inside the helicopter
- Air conditioning (it’s a medical requirement!)
More here: What to Do When You Miss Your Flight
8. How is it different from an ambulance?
It basically is a flying ambulance, but we have a registered nurse (RN) onboard, which ambulances are not required to have. We also carry more medications than an ambulance because we are considered a critical care transport team, and an ambulance is considered advanced life support. We bring the ICU and ER to the patient in the helicopter!
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9. Do you have to meet any physical restrictions like height or weight?
The military has height restrictions, but the company I work for now only has weight restrictions because of all the equipment, crew, and patients we need to fly. I have to get a medical clearance regularly, just to make sure that I’m healthy enough to fly. I also have to comply with FAA health requirements like all pilots do, and those are things like not having heart issues, no sleep apnea, past instances of loss of consciousness, etc.
10. What is your most commonly asked question?
Within the aviation industry, the most common question for everyone is “Where did you learn to fly?” Or “Where did you get your flight hours?” For me, I learned to fly with the military, and that’s also where I got my flight hours. For others, they could have learned to fly anywhere, but getting their hours could be from things like flight instructing, flying a news helicopter, giving scenic flights to tourists, and other things like that.
Mostly the assumption is that people who learned to fly with the military are super strict and regimented, and people who flew for tours are chatty. I’m often mistaken for a pilot who flew a tour helicopter!
More here: Flying for Beginners
11. What do you wish people knew about what you do?
There is no “one size fits all” way to become a pilot! Pilots meet eligibility and job requirements by the measure of hours. There are a million different ways pilots accumulate those hours. Ask any two pilots and they will tell you two very different love stories of good days and bad days, great jobs and terrible ones. The important thing is that once someone decides they want to be whichever type of pilot; EMS, Airline, Corporate, that they understand it may take several years, and several setbacks, but it is always worth it in the end, and every perceived setback makes you a better pilot in the end.
I also like when people ask how many women pilots there are. The percentage of licensed pilots who are women is still very small, the percentage of women airline pilots is smaller, and the percentage of women helicopter pilots is smaller still. I think the best way to continue increasing those numbers is for younger generations to see the women who are doing the jobs they might not otherwise realize are out there for them too!
More info: A Brief History of Flight
Want more posts about flying? Check out my Air Travel Page! And don’t forget to comment below with more questions for Dede!
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