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Photography by Kevin A. Roberts
When a child needs to be airlifted to St. Louis Children’s Hospital for emergency care, Skip Barthle gets the call. As senior lead pilot for the KidsFlight program, he swoops down like an angel to pick up sick children, providing a lifeline for terrified families.
• We operate two helicopters—and for the longer distances, one airplane—to transport ill and injured pediatric and neonatal patients from outlying areas to St. Louis Children’s Hospital, where they’ll get the highest level of care. We provide aircraft pilots and maintenance staff. The hospital provides the medical crew members. We don’t do accident scenes—we are dedicated to pediatrics and neonatal care.
• Last year, we did close to 700 transfers between all three aircraft, so we average about two a day. There are days we don’t fly at all, but it’s not often.
• When we get the call, we take off from our main KidsFlight base at St. Louis Downtown Airport in Cahokia. Our secondary helicopter is at Parkland Health Center in Farmington. The helicopters are all staffed 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
• The pilots aren’t involved in the medical care of the patient. We don’t even know the medical condition of the patient. We deliberately keep pilots out of the loop on that. We don’t want anything interfering with their judgment and risk analysis. It might be a premature baby who hasn’t reached term yet, and there could be significant health hazards due to the time element involved. We can’t have the pilot’s performance affected by emotional factors.
• All the pilots work 12-hour shifts for three days in a row, and then have six days off. We each do 50 percent day flying and 50 percent night flying.
• We fly a medical crew of three to four plus the pilot, and sometimes a parent. But we don’t often take a parent, because with all the people and baggage, we’re near our maximum weight. Every time someone releases their child, and they can’t go along, that’s a very difficult decision. We tell them where we’re going and ensure the safety of the child. Often, we’ll get a very nice letter after a child is released from the hospital thanking everyone for a job well done.
• It takes us 5 minutes to get to Children’s from Cahokia. The helipad has amber lights around it. We land, and the transport team is waiting for us. They come out with stretchers and bags, and we’re off the pad again in 3 minutes. It’s a well-oiled machine.
• Whenever anybody gets onto that aircraft, there is an intensity. It is all business.
• Landing on the Children’s roof, 12 stories up, is a skill that comes with experience. We have to plan our mass and loading extensively, and we calculate the winds to be within the window of safe limitations. It takes training and practice. After years, it becomes intuitive. Some of the biggest concerns are gusty winds that can make a vortex around the buildings.
• When we fly, we have a 260-pound fully enclosed isolette that is not only powered by aircraft systems but also internally, if there were to be a power failure. We have liquid oxygen, air pumps, respirators, AC medical power inverters, and drugs…
• It’s basically a flying emergency room.
• I’ve done over 4,000 air-medical flights. Over the years, I have flown a helicopter for transporting injured adults. I remember an auto accident when there was a 4-year-old girl in the emergency room at 2 a.m. The driver had been in no condition to drive. The girl was lying there in pain with compound bilateral femur fractures, scared to death. That stands out.
• I remember years and years ago, flying out of Joplin, we picked up a woman who was 19 in Eureka Springs, Ark. She had been refinishing the floors at her house with her family. There was a gas water heater, and the vapors from the floor finisher ignited and literally blew her out of the house. She had third-degree burns on 80 percent of her body. We got her to Tulsa, Okla. The rest of her family died in the accident. About 15 years later, I got a call. She said, “I lived.” She kept in touch with me for some time. You remember flights like that.
• My first logged flight was April 27, 1978. My anniversary is on the 27th, too—so my wife told me I better not forget that day! I was accepted by the U.S. Army in 1980 and served as an instructor pilot and flight examiner. I resigned in ’89 and went right into air medical.
• Flying gets in your blood.