As I’ve said many times in the past, my job allows me to meet many interesting people.
Last Saturday, I had another one of those opportunities and came away thoroughly impressed. This time the fascinating subjects were members of an Air Evac Lifeteam helicopter crew based in Salem, including pilot Gordon Vandivort (a Houston native who now lives in Richland) and emergency medical technicians Jamie Dunn (of St. Clair) and Teresa Click (of Sullivan.
I spent close to an hour hanging out and talking with them, as they graciously showed off their aircraft and discussed their duties with numerous inquisitive adults and kids who stopped by. Before they lifted off, I learned a great deal about what it’s like to do what they do.
I also learned that before they get to do it, they must have a whole lot of prior experience. When Dunn told me pilots need at least 2,000 hours before getting on with Air Evac, I said, “where the heck does someone get that kind of time in a helicopter cockpit?”
Her answer was rather obvious once I heard it.
“Mostly military duty,” she said. “We get an occasional tour guide from Arizona or somewhere, and there was a man who ran a crop dusting business and owned his own aircraft, but 95-percent or more of them come from the military.”
Like Vandivort. He said he had more than 5,000 hours flying a Blackhawk. Wow, 5,000 hours.
“You must have some stories,” I said.
“Maybe a few,” he said.
Dunn told a story about a non-military pilot who had a hard time when he landed at the scene of a “bad one.”
“He couldn’t take it,” she said. “He was like, ‘I’m out,’ and he quit.”
Having been witness to a couple of bad ones, I can understand that. I can also understand why that makes military veterans even more suited for the job.
Dunn has been an airborne EMT for more than four years. She said she still works part time for a “ground ambulance” outfit, but sometimes feels limited by the resources at her disposal in that role.
“We have more tools with us in the helicopter,” she said, “but we have to. But sometimes I’ll find myself wishing I had something with me on the ground that we’re not authorized to have on hand.”
Dunn pointed out that ground crews aren’t really stifled, it’s just that getting used to having more available resources and then working without as much can be a bit challenging. But medical chopper crews have earned the clearance to carry additional tools; basically, they rank higher.
Click said she had been with the Salem crew for about four months and is still learning the ropes, so to speak. She said she can already tell she’s in for many exciting moments.
“And these people I’m around are as good as it gets,” she said.
I got that same feeling. I don’t know who does the hiring for Air Evac and what the specific criteria are for getting on with the company, but I do know this trio from the Salem base knows what they’re doing. I felt like anyone unfortunate enough to be strapped into the aircraft’s single horizontal transport “bed” is at least in very, very good hands.
But more importantly, I learned that these are folks who are not only good at what they do, but sincerely love doing it.
“You can’t do this and not love it,” Dunn said. “Someone who didn’t love this wouldn’t be right for it and wouldn’t be good at it.”
I’d say that’s a good thing. Especially for people who are picked up for a ride.
Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald.