Board Up and Go

EMS pilots tell their stories.

"It was my first training flight with Mercy Air," says J.P. Wilson, a large, white-haired man. "I had gone through the ground school, and I was scheduled to fly with Jeff Emery. I got here about eight o'clock, and right at eight o'clock we got a call out here on Interstate 5. We took off. Jeff was doing the flying. As we got over the scene, it was easy to find because all of southbound Interstate 5 was completely blocked off. We were told to land in the middle of the freeway. Jeff set up and started to land, and we're all thinking traffic accident. There were a tremendous number of emergency vehicles, and what caught my eye was a lot of police force. Then some of the police officers were stringing crime-scene tape -- that yellow tape. "After we landed, Jeff and I were sitting in the aircraft, and the medical crew went out to the ambulance. You keep the aircraft running, usually, on the scene. The nurse came back and opened Jeff's door and said, 'Get him out of here,' meaning me. What had happened was one of the SANDAG tow truck drivers had stopped to help this fellow and the guy had shot him. Four or five or six times. A Marine saw what was happening, jumped the fence of the Marine Corps base, grabbed the tow truck driver, and took off running under fire. The guy was shooting at them. The shooter somehow got on the Marine base or got down by the fence. Anyway, the highway patrol and military police showed up, and they told him to throw down his gun and shot at him. He died of lead poisoning shortly after that.

"We were there to pick up the tow truck driver, who was, in the slang of the business, he was circling the drain. He was dying. He'd been shot. He had multiple bullet holes. The reason they wanted me out of that aircraft was because it was one of our 222s, in which you can spin the front seat around. The nurse was convinced she was going to have to intubate him -- in other words, put a tube down his throat, protect his airway, and breathe for him -- and she knew she didn't have time on the scene to do that. Most of the time they do that in the ambulance. There's a series of drugs they administer and insert the tube and it's a controlled environment, but this young man needed to get to a trauma center in a hurry. I kind of stood there and held the door while they loaded him, and he didn't look good at all. Then I stood there in the middle of the freeway as the aircraft took off, literally standing in the middle of Interstate 5 with all of these emergency vehicles around -- lights and the cacophony of multiple radios on the same frequency repeating. And I'm thinking, 'Man, this is going to be a cool job.'

"That afternoon as I was driving home after I'd finished training, they were talking about the shooting on the radio, because it was pretty big news in San Diego. They said he was in fair condition at Scripps. About 30 to 45 minutes after he was shot, he was getting wheeled into a trauma center and going into surgery. That felt pretty good to be part of that, even as a knuckleheaded observer."

J.P. Wilson, who is 51, lives in Bonita with his wife and two children, an 11-year-old daughter and a 7-year-old son. He began piloting helicopters for Mercy Air after a 22-year career in the Navy.

"I was a forester by training," he says, when we talk one morning in the crew quarters at the Carlsbad airport. "That's what I went to school for. I was working up in Idaho for the U.S. Forest Service, and we used helicopters all the time for logging and firefighting. I didn't fly them, but I flew in them all the time, and I'd always, even as a kid, been fascinated by helicopters. One day we were on a fire that was on the middle fork of the Salmon River, and the pilot dropped us off. He just tipped the nose over and went straight down into the middle fork of the Salmon River and tore out along the river bottom, and I thought, 'Hey, that looks like fun. I gotta learn how to do that.'

"I went down to Challis, Idaho, which was the closest place that had an instructor pilot. I asked him how much it would cost to learn to fly a helicopter, and I looked at my GS-5 salary as a forester -- which I think in the mid-'70s was about five and a quarter an hour -- compared the two, and realized that it wasn't going to happen.

"I started looking around, and the Navy offered me a job, which at the time was a five-year obligation. I thought I'd get out and go back to logging and firefighting, but one thing led to another and I did a career in the Navy."

Upon retiring in 2001, Wilson planned to fly for regional airlines, but his first training flight was on September 10. As the airline industry suffered following September 11, his career plans shifted. He has been flying with Mercy Air for over two years.

Mercy Air Services, Inc., which is not affiliated with Mercy Hospital, operates the only air-ambulance helicopters based in San Diego County. None of the local hospitals owns a helicopter. "We're part of a national corporation called Air Methods," says Pam Steen, a program director at Mercy Air. Air Methods has two different models. "There's the traditional side, which is mostly hospital-based programs, and then there are the independent programs like Mercy Air. It's very expensive for a hospital to have a helicopter and to be able to maintain it and use it for scene calls. It just doesn't tend to be very profitable from the hospital's standpoint, and that's why we're seeing more and more independent operators."

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