Mercy Flight's Fixed Wing Aircraft
Fulfills Nonprofit's Mission

When locals are asked about Mercy Flight, many will mention the fleet of helicopters often dispatched to scenes where patients' lives hang in the balance.  While there is plenty of truth to that description, Mercy Flight is much more than just its helicopters.

Accompanying Mercy Flight's helicopter operation is an outstanding fleet of ground ambulances, which serve Genesee County, the Village of Springville, the Town of Concord, and the Town of Niagara.  These vehicles will likely respond to more than 12,000 requests for ambulance service this year.

Another crucial, but lesser known branch of Mercy Flight's capabilities is its fixed wing air ambulance service, supported by "Mercy Flight 3" - the jet that has a pivotal role in carrying out Mercy Flight's lifesaving mission.

According to Mercy Flight's Director of Air Medical Operations, Donald Trzepacz, Jr., "Mercy Flight 3 is pressed into service when a patient requires transport that is beyond the range of our helicopter fleet.  These calls often require substantial logistical support, and they provide patients who need medical care not only long-distance travel, but for many, the only chance they may have for survival."

Mercy Flight 3, a Learjet 31 housed at the Genesee County Airport in Batavia, NY, is available 24/7 to transport patients on an emergent or non-emergent basis from one facility to another, including cross-country missions.  The jet has the ability to fly at an altitude of 51,000 feet, with a cruising speed of 515 miles per hour, and a range of about 1,600 miles (1,400 nautical miles) on one tank of fuel.

Douglas Baker, Mercy Flight's Founding President and CEO states, "Mercy Flight was born out of the need to transport patients great distances at speeds faster than a ground ambulance could, thus reducing out-of-hospital time or scene-to-hospital time.  The next logical step was to find solutions for patients that needed to be rapidly transported beyond the capabilities of a helicopter." 

Vice President of Finance, Scott Wooton, adds, "Helicopters are very nimble and fast, which makes them perfect for responding to 'on-scene' incidents or rooftop helipads across the region.  But, their great agility comes at a cost - chiefly, their effective range.  While our helicopters can in some circumstances transport patients over distances as great as, say Buffalo to Cleveland, it often makes more sense at this range, logistically and financially, to utilize the jet."

Before Mercy Flight 3 is called into service, much is required from the Mercy Flight staff to execute a successful patient transport.  Peter West, Mercy Flight's Fixed Wing Coordinator, emphasizes the importance of communication from the beginning of a mission to the end:

"Our Communications Specialists play an important role throughout the entire fixed wing process, from the initial intake of information from the requestor, until the plane lands back at the Batavia airport.  They obtain patient information, coordinate ground ambulances on both ends of the flight, provide notifications and send updates to the medical crew and pilots, as well as flight-follow the airplane.  The coordination of a fixed wing call can span over several shifts, so the flow of information between the Communications Specialists is vital."

Mercy Flight coordinates a total "bed to bed" service.  This means Mercy Flight schedules ambulances at each end to meet the crew.  The Learjet can also accommodate at least one, and at times, two family members to join the patient on the flight, depending on the patient's condition and the number of medical personnel needed.  Trzepacz continues, "Our crew meets the patient at their bedside in the sending facility and stays with them to provide continuous and consistent care until the patient is in bed at the receiving facility.  We take our responsibility very seriously, we are also sensitive to the struggles of their family."

The current team of fixed wing Flight Paramedics and Flight Nurses includes individuals from the Mercy Flight helicopter team that have expressed an interest in performing their lifesaving services on these long-distance transports.  In addition to the training which readies them for helicopter duties, the fixed wing team members receive more in-depth training in air physiology and long-term ICU-level care.

"Most fixed wing missions are six or more hours in length," Donald states.  "The crew needs to think well ahead so they are prepared to treat what may arise if the patient's condition changes."

Donald also notes that depending on the complexity or severity of the patient's illness, a Critical Care Nurse and Critical Care Paramedic are sometimes augmented with a Flight Physician and/or perfusionist to assist with intensive care devices like ECMO (extracorporeal membrane oxygenation), Impella VAD (ventricular assist device), and IABP (intra-aortic balloon pump).  

Mercy Flight's fixed wing service has executed several of these very in-depth and intense missions, successfully transferring patients on multiple intensive care devices.  "These calls are almost always received as emergent and require an incredible level of logistical collaboration to safely accomplish," Donald acknowledges.  "Mercy Flight is one of the few programs that will undertake these extremely critical, lifesaving calls."  

Medical Director and Flight Physician, Dr. Christopher Tanski, explains, "these devices support the heart and lungs in patients who cannot do this on their own."  

Not all patients transported by Mercy Flight 3 will need these devices, because their conditions can vary.  Trzepacz states that missions can be classified into three categories: emergent ("the patient is in immediate need for our critical care team and needs to be transferred now"), urgent ("the patient requires our critical care team to be transported however their case is not time sensitive but should occur in the next 24 hours") and scheduled ("the patient needs our critical care team but is usually stable and is going to a facility either closer to home or for longer-term care").

Mercy Flight 3's missions can include children or adults that require the resources of a specialty center that is best suited to address their specific medical condition anywhere in the country.  The jet can also be called into service to transport patients back home if they become ill or are injured while vacationing elsewhere.  Scott shares that Mercy Flight prides itself on being an option for patients that have nowhere else to turn, and their fixed wing service allows Mercy Flight to offer a solution:

"This means not only around the clock, every day, but also regardless of their condition.  We strive to be the answer to the question, 'how do we get this patient from here to there?', no matter the distance, the urgency, or the severity of the patient's illness or injury.  Without our fixed wing service, we wouldn't be able to be that 'beacon of hope' for the young girl or boy transported to Women & Children's with burns so severe that they're beyond the capabilities of that esteemed facility."

Maintaining a whole fleet of vehicles can prove difficult, and when you add helicopters that are rotated on strict maintenance cycles, it may seem nearly impossible for a nonprofit to maintain a jet as well.

Fortunately, Thunderun Aviation takes on that task for Mercy Flight.  The Learjet is actually owned and operated by Thunderun, which leases the aircraft to Mercy Flight on an as-needed basis.  The organizations have a great partnership; Thunderun provides the jet and the pilots, and Mercy Flight provides the medical professionals and their equipment.  According to Marc Boies, Mercy Flight's Director of Flight Operations and co-owner of Thunderun Aviation, "The aircraft is operated with a two-pilot crew, and all of our Captains have extensive airline background, with an average of 32 years of flight experience each."

Scott continues, "We're very fortunate to have Thunderun's dedicated chartering service at the ready.  This gives Mercy Flight all the benefits of 24/7 availability of this highly capable Learjet, without the fixed costs associated with owning and maintaining it."

While Mercy Flight 3 may not be as visible as the ambulances and helicopters, it is a branch of Mercy Flight that also changes the lives of many people in the area.

"It wouldn't be possible without our passionate and dedicated staff, who often are working after hours, or respond from home to take the mission," Donald explains. "Our fixed wing program has been and continues to truly be a beacon of hope when minutes matter, and beyond."