As the longest-running air ambulance service in the state, the pilots of American Med Flight maneuver the small company’s four specially configured Piper Cheyenne II aircraft through ice, wind, storms and mountainous terrain. American Med Flight regularly saves the lives of rural Nevadans by reaching out to get them service in their time of need.
Capt. Jim Richardson, who has flown as a private pilot from the age of 19, said his most memorable trip was getting the call to fly from Reno to Ely to pick up a young girl who needed a heart transplant. He then had to fly her to Stanford Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., where the operation was to be performed.
“She would never have had a normal life without the transplant,” Richardson said.
Richardson said he flies 175 to 200 emergency flights a year and spends his shifts on call. The company operates 24 hours a day.
“You just have to be ready,” Richardson said. “You never know when you’re going to be called.”
In a typical flight pattern, an air ambulance will travel from Reno to the San Francisco Bay Area, then Ely to Salt Lake City, said Greg Klick, medical program director.
The niche American Med Flight serves is residents in rural Nevada and parts of eastern California.
“What we do most is fly to rural communities throughout Nevada,” Klick said.
The most common stops are Hawthorne, Lovelock, Eureka, Elko, Battle Mountain, eastern Sierra, Alturas, Cedarville, Quincy, Lone Pine, Mammoth Lakes, Bishop and Susanville.
Medical helicopters are not built to withstand the brutal conditions that the air ambulance planes are built to fly in, Klick said. In addition, the planes can fly twice as fast as helicopters, meaning a patient who needs critical care can be flown from rural areas of Nevada to San Francisco in just over half an hour, all the while receiving medical treatment on board the aircraft.
American Med Flight provides a nurse and a paramedic upon arrival to a scene, administering immediate care. Those care givers stay with the patient, delivering him or her to the waiting ground ambulance at the final destination. To get them there, the aircraft can fly in the worst kind of weather. The high-performance, twin-engine planes are designed to fly the mountainous terrain and weather of Nevada at high speeds. The planes can cruise at up to 300 miles per hour at altitudes up to 28,000 feet.
The planes are built to fly in stormy conditions.
“When other planes are grounded, we are able to fly,” Klick said. “We fly all over.
“They are one of the few aircraft certified by the FAA to fly into known icy conditions,” Klick said.
Headquartered out of a hangar and small office building on the east side of Reno-Tahoe International Airport, the employee-owned company has 50 employees with eight pilots on shift at any give time and makes 70 to 100 medical flights a month. The company is owned by founder Jack Dawson and has a smaller station in Ely.
Even in tight economic times, American Med Flight continues to do sound business with the service it provides.
“We’re very healthy. We’ve been here 25 years,” Klick said. “We’re well capitalized. Financially, we’ve very strong.”
For this reason, American Med Flight is able to provide thousands of dollars in uncompensated care each year, Klick said. The company also contracts with the Veterans Administration Hospital in Reno for a negotiated rate that save veterans and the government money for the flights.
“If a patient has no means to pay and it is medically necessary, we accept those flight, even though we know we are not going to be paid,” Klick said. “Simply, because it’s the right thing to do.”