WARRENTON — Late Thursday afternoon, pilot Rick Holbrook landed a blue Agusta A109E Power helicopter on the tarmac at the Astoria Regional Airport, a white, mountainous Life Flight Network insignia emblazoned on its sides. Pilots and medics emerged from a gray, manufactured office and living quarters recently positioned next to electric tug company Lektro’s hangar, to greet Holbrook and mark the helicopter’s inaugural flight into Warrenton.
At 9 a.m. Friday, the air medevac service officially started its first coastal base, staffed 24/7 for the straightforward mission of getting people to the hospital faster.
The right fit
Based in Aurora in the northern Willamette Valley, Life Flight has 18 locations throughout the Columbia, Willamette and Snake river watersheds in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana. Warrenton is the first base on the coast.
“We spent a lot of time on researching, making sure it would be a good fit for Life Flight,” said Jacob Dalstra, a spokesman for the nonprofit.
The base in Warrenton serves the coast from Aberdeen, Wash., to Tillamook, either of which it can reach in less than a half an hour. Life Flight will transport patients from the scene of an emergency to a local or regional hospital, or in between hospitals.
While thanking local municipalities and hospitals for their help at a welcoming dinner held by Life Flight Thursday in Astoria, Dalstra singled out Mike Weston, director of business development and operations for the Port of Astoria and a main manager at the airport, for helping fit the base in at the airport.
“There’s a lot of work that went in on the City Council level,” Weston said about getting Life Flight’s trucked-in office OK’d, adding Life Flight will likely have its own permanent hangar within the next year or two.
Life Flight’s addition boosts activity at the airport, Weston said, but more importantly provides a critical service that could save lives.
As industrial and commercial activity increases at the airport, the Port is looking to lease some of its land at an adjacent, undeveloped industrial park, Weston said. It is also waiting on a proposal from tenant Brim Aviation, an air taxi service delivering Columbia River Bar Pilots to incoming and outgoing ships, to be the private fixed-base operator of the airport.
Life Flight’s helicopter is certified for instrument flight rules, meaning it can approach the airport in low visibility using its instruments. The company spent months getting approved for instrument-rated approaches to local hospitals, from Grays Harbor Community Hospital in Aberdeen, Wash., to Tillamook Regional Medical Center.
“We’re bringing about $1 million to the community in payroll,” Dalstra said. Each medical flight includes a pilot, a nurse and a paramedic.
Overall, Life Flight’s 24/7 base will include four pilots, four nurses, three full-time paramedics and four part-time shifts. Clinical Manager Chris Redling said the operation is stocked with the same capabilities as any ambulance, emergency room or intensive care unit.
Life Flight’s helicopter can land in any flat 100-by-100-foot area, but can’t hoist people like the U.S. Coast Guard, which is right next door with two of its own helicopters. It has a history of working in conjunction with the air medevac service on rescues.
In November 2013, Life Flight medevaced a surfer to Portland who was rescued by the Coast Guard and Seaside Fire and Rescue. In July 2012, the Coast Guard hoisted injured prison workers in the Tillamook State Forest and placed them in a forest clearing, where Tillamook Fire and Rescue crews took one to the local hospital and Life Flight medevaced another to Portland.
Life Flight also gleans about half of its pilots from the military, including Daniel Leary, an outgoing Coast Guard pilot. Leary said the Coast Guard rescue swimmers, all trained paramedics, could learn more advanced medical skills from the Life Flight staff, which in turn could learn more survival skills from the Coast Guard.
Dalstra said Life Flight has had talks with the agency. “I think we can both learn from each other quite a bit.”
Life Flight Network offers a membership for $60 per family per year. Medevacs for members are charged to their insurance, with the rest written off by Life Flight. The Life Flight membership