Air Ambulance Careers
Welcome to the second installment in our Air Medical Resource series about the Air Ambulance. In this resource, we’ll examine the various posts aboard the aircraft and provide job descriptions for the various positions in a typical air medical team.
The specialists on board air ambulances don’t work in a vacuum — they depend upon one another to provide needed care to the patient and get everyone in the aircraft to the destination safely. Far from being made up of generic “flight medics,” as the popular misconception goes, medical crews aboard air ambulances actually consist of a highly specialized team of aviation and healthcare professionals.
Air Ambulance Pilot
Air ambulance pilots operate the helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft being used to transport the patient and air medical crew from one location to another. In the U.S., they must have a pilot’s license, a first class medical license, as well as an Airline Transport Pilot (ATP) certificate.
The specifics of the air ambulance pilot’s job vary depending upon whether the air ambulance service utilizes rotor or fixed-wing air ambulances (or both).
They are also required to have logged a certain amount of flight time in the aircraft utilized by the air ambulance (which varies depending on the type of aircraft). Every air ambulance needs a pilot. Some services may employ a co-pilot as well depending on the aircraft model.
Believe it or not, flight nurses have been around since World War II. As a primary care provider, registered flight nurses are an absolutely vital part of the air ambulance team, assisting flight paramedics/physicians and respiratory therapists in managing and providing quality care to the patient in the sometimes turbulent conditions on board an aircraft.
Flight nurses administer medications, monitor vital signs, and support other members of the air medical crew. As part of their specialized role on board the air ambulance, in the U.S., they are required to be certified in BLS, ACLS, and PALS. They may also be board certified in CEN, CFRN, and CCRN.
Depending on the service, flight nurses may also plan and prepare for air medical transports, including creating a patient care plan. They may also contribute to the air medical team in other capacities as well, such as in team management and educational roles.
Flight paramedics (sometimes called simply flight medics) perform life-saving techniques in the air and monitor patients’ conditions during transports. Flight paramedics also have prior experience providing emergency care on the ground in addition to training aboard an aircraft.
In the U.S. flight paramedics have EMT certification as well as BLS, PALS, and ACLS certificates, in addition to other certifications that may be required by the air ambulance service or state. Many are certified as instructors in various areas of emergency medicine.
A flight physician is a licensed medical doctor or DO certified in emergency medicine by the Medical Board. In addition to monitoring the patient’s condition along with the rest of the air medical crew, they may have training to perform special surgical procedures on board the aircraft. Flight physicians are typically also certified in BLS, PALS, and ACLS.
Some air medical services will not have a physician on board the air ambulance, but the air medical crew may communicate with a physician on the ground during the flight.
In an air ambulance setting, respiratory therapists work with flight nurses, flight physicians, and flight paramedics to treat patients who have breathing, heart, or lung disorders. They are a vital member of the team, providing specialized cardiopulmonary care to patients inside a helicopter or fixed-wing aircraft.
The patients that RTs work with are often on ventilators, so in the air, the RT will monitor the patient’s breathing situation, vital signs, and related equipment. They are particularly needed in the case of infants or elderly patients being transported by air.
Respiratory therapists are also on the flight to provide emergency care if a patient experiences a heart attack or a stroke. They are most often onboard air ambulances during long-distance transports, but may be on hand to provide care over shorter distances as well.
As you can see, today’s air ambulances truly have earned their moniker of “hospital in the sky” (or “high-altitude ICU). There are a number of specialists involved in every air transport who each have a specific role to play in making sure the patient — and the rest of the crew — arrives safely.
Some services such as medical charter flights that cater to a specific segment of the population may have additional trained specialists on their flight crews. In general, however, air ambulances will have a fairly standardized team consisting of the specialized air medical crew jobs above.