Two of the nation’s premier air medical transport and rescue programs are celebrating major anniversaries, each one marking multiple decades of life-saving service to thousands of patients.
Intermountain Life Flight is celebrating its 45th anniversary, while Classic Air Medical is commemorating its 35th anniversary. Both are part of the Intermountain Health system and serve patients throughout the nation.
Past patients, pilots, flight nurses, caregivers, and first responders, gathered Thursday on the helipad at Intermountain Medical Center in Murray, to celebrate these medical milestones and the almost 200,000 lives that were aided and saved during those many decades of service.
Intermountain Life Flight, which is the only civilian air medical transport program in the nation licensed and authorized by the FAA to perform hoist rescues, has one of the longest histories of service in the nation, with service beginning in August 1978.
During the past 45 years, the Intermountain Life Flight program, which began with one helicopter at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City, has transported 118,756 patients by airplane and helicopter more than 17.3 million patient miles.
“The Intermountain Life Flight program has a deep history, with Life Flight’s first flight to Roosevelt, Utah in 1978 and Classic Air Medical beginning services on Memorial Day 1988,” said Rob Allen, president and CEO of Intermountain Health. “Combined the two transport 32 patients a day. The success of the Intermountain Life Flight program is thanks to the many caregivers in the air and on the ground, who have dedicated themselves to helping our many communities and people in need.”
Classic Air Medical, also part of the Intermountain Health system, is celebrating 35 years of service and providing air medical support from 24 bases across the Rocky Mountain and Desert Southwest, with coverage from New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona, Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Idaho.
In 2021, Classic Air Medical joined Intermountain Health. Together with Life Flight this forms the largest air ambulance service supporting not-for-profit healthcare in the nation, with 31 bases throughout the Mountain West and 56 aircraft.
In 2022, Classic Air Medical transported approximately 6,559 patients with its fleet of 32 aircraft, including 22 helicopters and 10 airplanes.
“The longevity and reputation of these two trailblazing air medical programs shows Intermountain’s commitment to providing coordinated care as close to home as possible,” said Tony Henderson, chief executive officer of Classic Air Medical and executive director of medical transport services for Intermountain. “We thank our EMS partners and first responders throughout the region who have helped us reach these milestones and safely serve our many communities.”
In 2022, Intermountain Life Flight transported 4,548 patients with its fleet of seven helicopters, three airplanes, one Cessna jet airplane, and one Challenger long-range jet.
Christina Michel, 39, knows first-hand the value of this life-saving type of rescue.
Last May, while hiking Mount Timpanogos with a friend, Michel slipped while crossing an ice patch close to the summit.
She got up and tried to maneuver herself to safety, but fell again. This time, a rock, often called a “land shark,” stopped her fall. With no way to go up or down, she managed to pull her phone out of her pocket and call 911 for help.
“If it’s too dangerous and puts another life at risk, I’m done,” thought Michel, while recalling how she held on to that rock for dear life.
An Intermountain Life Flight helicopter and crew soon arrived, and she saw a paramedic being hoisted down to help her, but due to the terrain, had trouble getting to her.
Soon she felt her feet being put into the hoist harness and before she knew it, she was in the Intermountain Life Flight helicopter headed for safety.
“It was a sense of relief, a sense of disbelief. I was in a daze,” said Michel. “It happened so fast, but I was just so grateful to be safe.”
The Intermountain Life Flight helicopters are designed to handle high-altitude flights, as well as maneuvers in the Mountain West’s rugged terrain and extreme climate.
In addition to hoist rescues, other specialty transport teams and services part of the Intermountain Life Flight program includes: neonatal, pediatric, rural ground transport, high risk obstetrics, mechanical circulatory support, and respiratory support.
For Jake Blackwelder, a medic with Classic Air Medical, based in Moab, he found being on the other side of a rescue a humbling experience.
Just last month, while returning home from a family camping trip in Western Colorado, Blackwelder’s family had stopped in Ridgway when their 9-year-old daughter, Olivia, began experiencing a seizure.
Blackwelder recounts how her jaw was clenched, her breathing was labored, and she began vomiting. His wife immediately called 911.
Blackwelder knew she needed medication – and needed it now.
His daughter stopped seizing when the ambulance arrived from Montrose, and he got a thumbs up from her right hand, but no response from her left side. Concerned she may have had a stroke, Blackwelder knew she may need to be flown to a hospital and that Classic Air Medical would be the best one for her, so he called his team.
Due to weather concerns, the Classic Air Medical crew flew her from Montrose to Intermountain Primary Children’s Hospital in Salt Lake City, which was comforting to the Blackwelder’s since they knew the hospital well. Little Olivia had been treated there for leukemia as a child.
At Primary Children’s, Olivia’s neurologist diagnosed her with "Self-Limited Epilepsy with Central Temporal Spikes" or SLECTS. This type of epilepsy happens to children around the time that they are sleeping or napping or waking up from sleeping.
Her doctors say she will likely grow out of it in four to six years.
“The comfort and peace of mind I got from talking to a familiar voice, who was calm and reassuring, was so incredibly helpful and relieving,” said Blackwelder. “To the people that showed up to our emergency, and all the folks in communication center who worked on our behalf, we are so grateful for their time, compassion, and empathy.”
MEDIA NOTE: Video and photos available upon request.