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Anatomy class visits Midwest Medical life flightTell North Platte what you think
Photo by Joe Chitwood
Maegan Hiatt, from left, Ryce Troyer, McKenzie Mustion, Tayler Baker and Jade Olson check out the interior of the Husker copter.
Photo by Joe Chitwood
Huskers Helicopter disassembled for 1,500 hour maintenance.
Photo by Joe Chitwood
Ryan Barney explains procedures
Photo by Joe Chitwood
Helicopter returns from a life-flight trip
Photo by Joe Chitwood
The class with Flight Nurse Kim Wessels (standing at left) and Flight Paramedic KC Merrihew (in doorway with hat.)

Among the activities of the Hershey High School students this year, the anatomy class visited the Midwest Medical Transport Company that operates the life flight helicopter service at North Platte Regional Airport/Lee Bird Field.

Students typically tour the helicopter and talk with pilots, medics and flight nurses. In years past, they examined equipment on board and saw firsthand how the team provides care for patients. But this year when the students arrived on April 1, however, the helicopter was called to Ogallala just as they arrived.

Without a chopper or crew for at least an hour, director of maintenance Ryan Barney improvised a tour of the steps necessary to keep the helicopter flying. This allowed students to learn more about a possible career choice in the medical aircraft maintenance field.

Barney is a graduate of Colorado Aerotech. Along with two full-time mechanics, they provide maintenance 24 hours a day.

"They fly it, we maintain it," he said. 

The maintenance crew is in the background, but they are vital to the safe operation of the copter. Barney said that by law, helicopters have preventative maintenance at 100, 200, 500 and 1,500 hours (or 5 years) of flight time. The 1,500 hour inspection is an intensive check of key components. 

The owners of the maintenance company, Ken and Jill Wolfe, also own a helicopter named the Husker Helicopter. They use it to grant children's Nebraska Make-A-Wish dreams. They give the children and families a copter ride to the game and watch the game from their sky box suite.

By chance, the Husker Helicopter was in the hanger for its 1,500 hour inspection, giving the class a firsthand look at the process.

The rotor blades were removed to be inspected. the drive shafts to both the top and tail rotors are removed and disassembled. The same procedure is followed with the life-flight machine.

When asked what the Husker machine costs, Barney said it is in the neighborhood of $1.2 million. However, the life-flight copter costs around $7 million. There is one engine on the lower priced model, compared to two on the life flight. Also, Barney said the life-flight copter is Instrument Flight Rated. It can fly in bad weather using instruments to plot and maintain course. The Husker helicopter is only Visual Flight Rated, so the weather must be good enough for the pilot to see the surroundings.

Brarney proudly noted that Midland has the only IFR rated machine in Nebraska.

"If other services throughout the state can't fly due to the weather, they can call us and we can make the trip,” Barney said.

He was asked how much it costs to fly. He said every flight costs a minimum of $1,850. For every hour of use, nearly three hours of maintenance are required.

The maintenance time includes filling out records and forms. Therecords stay with the machine forever, even if it sold, Barney said.

The chopper can cruise at 165 mph. Response time on medical calls is critical, which is why maintenance is so important. On average, it takes about 10 minutes from the time the call is received to the time the medical copter is airborne.

Both helicopters models were built by Eurocopter. However, Barney noted that the company was purchased earlier this year and new models will be called Air Bus Helicopters.

Barney said he has not seen many women choose aero-maintenance as a career, but he believes that women are just as qualified as men to enter this field. 

He thought one reason women have not shown more interest is because they are not aware of these types of jobs. He hopes more people will consider aero-maintenance as a career. He said it was a challenging job.

"It's not like auto mechanics; you don't get a second chance. You can't just pull over and stop on a cloud when you have a problem," he said.

He said mechanics, pilots and medic crews develop trust with each other. One way trust and respect is earned is during post-repair test flight when the mechanic goes along. This helps him double-check his work and gives the pilot confidence that the mechanic is sure of his work.

As the time for the student’s departure drew near, the life-flight helicopter returned and students watched it land. Unfortunately, they had only had 15 minutes to spend with the flight crew.

Certified flight paramedic K. C. Merrihew gave an abbreviated rundown of the crew. He holds 12 certifications in his profession and continues to study to pass renewals. Chief flight nurse Kim Wessels let the students know that K.C. is one of only three certified flight medics in Nebraska.

Merrihew encouraged students to go into a field of study that they plan to use. He said his first major was in communications, but he eventually chose as a profession as far from communications as one could get.

"Decide what you are going to do and go into that field of study," he said. "A degree that you don't use is just a piece of paper.”

The team thanked the students for coming to learn about the helicopter and wished they had more time.

Wessels was happy the students were able to tour the maintenance side of their company. "Our maintenance department outshines all others in Nebraska" she said. "They keep us alive with their dedication to keeping the aircraft up to date.”

Chief pilot Neil Ehringer has been with the company for nine months. He enjoys the challenges. When asked his most harrowing experience, he immediately said, "yesterday.”

"Strong wind gusts grabbed our tail rotor section and whipped the chopper around,” he said. “With a helicopter, you don't just yank the stick or use foot pedals to bring it back, you must let it glide a ways and slowly make corrections to avoid danger.”

When nurse Wessels asked Ehringer to take her picture with the students, he was unable to figure out how the camera worked. 

After several tries he handed it back to her.

“Oh my!" she said with a laugh, "You can fly us, but can't figure out how to use a phone cam? Now that scares me.” Ehringer smiled and said, “Now, this is really my most harrowing experience.”

Each year, Hershey advanced science teacher Amy Beyer plans the trip, along with a visit to UNK. 

Beyer says most of the students in anatomy plan to enter a health, sports recreation or a medical related field. Beyer used to schedule a tour of Great Plains Regional Medical Center, but due to newer rules that protect privacy, student tours were discontinued.

"One of the nurses at the hospital suggested touring Midwest, so I made arrangements and have brought my class here for the past few years," she said.

After visiting the airport, the students continued by bus to UNK. There, they were divided into three groups and saw the latest technology, including underwater weighing and treadmill testing of oxygen use. They also visited the cadaver study laboratory.

Following the tour, they met with university staff for an informational discussion of courses and degrees available in the health field.

The class stopped for a fast food lunch and then returned to Hershey after a full day.

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The North Platte Bulletin - Published 5/19/2014
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