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‘We’re still healing’: After a difficult couple of years, Mercy Flight charts a path forward

By July 27, 2023January 26th, 2024No Comments
Jon Harris
July 27, 2024

Margaret Ferrentino struggles at first to describe the most difficult stretch in Mercy Flight’s 42-year history.

“I don’t even know if there are words,” said Ferrentino, Mercy Flight’s president who has been involved in the nonprofit organization since its inception.

There was the hard landing in October 2021, when a pilot lost visual reference to the ground in a fog just north of Genesee County Airport. No one was seriously hurt, but that helicopter was badly damaged and decommissioned.

Then on April 26, 2022, Mercy Flight pilot James E. Sauer and Bell Helicopter flight instructor Stewart M. Dietrick were killed in a crash during a training exercise in the Town of Elba. The National Transportation Safety Board has not yet completed its investigation into the crash, though a preliminary report last May suggested the main rotor blade may have sliced the helicopter’s tail.

Ferrentino said nothing could prepare her and the organization for that day, even in a high-risk industry.

“It continues to be difficult,” she said. “We’re still healing.”

Mercy Flight
Mercy Flight President Margaret Ferrentino at the communications center at Mercy Flight in Cheektowaga.

As the organization recovered, Mercy Flight founder Douglas H. Baker died Aug. 19, 2022, after a lengthy illness. Two days after Baker’s funeral service, Ferrentino lost her father.

Through it all, Mercy Flight persevered and found its path forward through community support and a focus on its mission of providing air and ground ambulance services across Western New York.

On top of the emotional toll, there was the operational challenge of going from four helicopters down to two, which limited the organization’s ability to respond to as many air ambulance calls as it did at full strength.

“It’s so difficult, especially for our people up in our comm center taking the calls,” Ferrentino said. “Aside from things we can’t control like the weather and aircraft being in for maintenance, to have to say, ‘We don’t have an asset to respond,’ is just heartbreaking.”

But Mercy Flight endured, fueled by “all the love we felt from our community,” Ferrentino said.

After the crash last April, several local landmarks were illuminated in Mercy Flight’s colors, orange and blue.

The day after it happened, Executive Vice President Scott Wooton remembers driving through Elma to see houses with orange and blue lights and a picture of a Mercy Flight helicopter on Jamison Road Volunteer Fire Co.’s LED board.

“The community hugged us when we needed it,” he said.

Mercy Flight
Mercy Flight Executive Vice President Scott Wooton  speaks during a National EMS Memorial Service and Weekend of Honor Moving Honors memorial ceremony honoring fallen Mercy Flight pilot James Sauer at Patriots and Heroes Park in Lancaster on July 18, 2023.

Wooton said a “bright lining of a really dark cloud” has been getting to know Sauer’s family – relationships that started when Wooton drove to Sauer’s home in Churchville, west of Rochester, on the day of the crash.

And the family has showed up by the dozens for remembrance and dedication events this year.

“They’ve been with us through all this, as we’ve tried to be with them,” Ferrentino said.

‘The second-hardest part’

At a time of cuts in rural health care across Western New York, Mercy Flight is arguably more crucial than ever because it can quickly transport patients in remote areas to major hospitals.

“As health care changes in rural communities and outlying areas, there’s nothing more important than the air transport of Mercy Flight,” Catholic Health President and CEO Mark Sullivan said. “The ability to call in a Mercy Flight can be the difference between life or death.”

Two people aboard a Mercy Flight helicopter died in a crash about 1 p.m. in Elba in Genesee County, state police said.

For more than a year, Mercy Flight was down to two helicopters following the two Genesee County crashes.

And with the organization’s period of annual maintenance – each helicopter stays grounded for three or four weeks annually, usually during the winter, for scheduled work – that meant Mercy Flight was down to one helicopter for two months straight in January and February this year.

“That’s been the second-hardest part of these whole past two years is just knowing you have people out there that need you and you don’t have what you’re used to having to be able to go out and help them,” Wooton said.

Mercy Flight
Anothony Antonucci takes a call requesting a Mercy Flight helicopter in the communications center at Mercy Flight in Cheektowaga, June 27, 2023. The communications center runs close to 20 ambulances from Mercy Flight EMS as well as three, soon to be four, helicopters.

But Mercy Flight is building back its fleet – something that’s not cheap, especially for a nonprofit with typical annual revenue of about $23.5 million. Wooton said a new helicopter, when folding in financing and insurance, costs about $9.25 million, an expense that is made easier with low-interest, flexible financing through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The organization on June 8 publicly introduced its new Bell 429 helicopter at its headquarters near Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga.

There, surrounded by Sauer’s family, Mercy Flight dedicated the new helicopter – registration N509TJ – in the late pilot’s memory.

The pilot’s door has a decal that reads “in honor and remembrance of pilot James E. Sauer.” It also features a quote from Sauer: “The office is small, but the view is beautiful.”

Mercy Flight
A picture of fallen pilot James Sauer sits on a desk at Mercy Flight in Cheektowaga.

That brought the organization’s helicopter fleet to three – and just in time.

Saturday, June 17, was the first day that Mercy Flight had three helicopters in service at the same time since the fatal crash in Elba.

Shortly after noon that day, all three helicopters were dispatched to the scene of a deadly crash in the Town of Freedom in Cattaraugus County, where police said a man had “purposely” driven his pickup truck into the path of his sister’s car.

Mercy Flight airlifted three people from the scene, one of whom later died at Erie County Medical Center. Wooton noted that it’s rare to have three helicopters called to one scene.

The incident showed the critical role that air ambulance plays in rural areas – something Mercy Flight’s founder saw more than four decades earlier.

A pioneer

Before Mercy Flight’s founding, Baker’s LaSalle Ambulance was doing neonatal high-risk infant transport, driving all over Western New York and even into Pennsylvania to bring patients to Women & Children’s Hospital of Buffalo. Baker figured there had to be a better way.

At the time, air medical service was in its infancy. And when Baker approached area hospitals, “everybody thought he was literally out of his mind,” recalled Ferrentino, who became an emergency medical technician in 1977 and worked at LaSalle.

Mercy Flight
A 1981 Mercy Flight news conference photograph shows Mercy Flight President Margaret Ferrentino, at far left, as paramedic in her mid-20s. The photo is on display at Mercy Flight in Cheektowaga.

But when Baker met with Sister Sheila Marie Walsh, the administrator of Mercy Hospital in South Buffalo, she, too, thought providing air medical services in Western New York was needed. Not long after, Mercy Flight was established, completing its first mission on Sept. 19, 1981, and becoming the state’s first emergency medical helicopter provider.

Since then, Mercy Flight has completed more than 31,000 air patient missions, including on-scene emergencies and hospital transfers.

Today, it employs 235 people, operates helicopter bases in Cheektowaga, Batavia, Olean and Springville and has a ground ambulance division, Mercy Flight EMS, that serves Genesee, Niagara and Orleans counties, the towns of Hamlin and Concord and the Village of Springville. The addition of the Town of Hamlin and Orleans County is recent, after Mercy Flight EMS officially absorbed the small, financially struggling Central Orleans Volunteer Ambulance’s operations this spring.

Mercy Flight
Allen Lederhouse Jr., director of aviation maintenance, replaces a handle strap inside the cockpit of a helicopter in the hangar at Mercy Flight in Cheektowaga on July 11, 2023.

“We moved from what people viewed as a crazy idea to now an expected standard of care, which is amazing to see,” Ferrentino said.

Moving forward

Mercy Flight will soon be back to its full fleet of four helicopters.

It expects the arrival of the fourth helicopter later this summer, planning to dedicate the aircraft in Baker’s memory near the one-year anniversary of his death. That helicopter’s registration number will be N505TJ – 505 was Baker’s EMS number and TJ were the initials of Baker’s son who died at 11 years old (that’s why Mercy Flight’s helicopters have TJ in their tail numbers).

Moving forward, Ferrentino would like to expand Mercy Flight’s communications center, the organization’s brain where communications specialists run close to 20 ambulances and three – soon to be four – helicopters.

There also are talks of adding a fifth helicopter in the next few years.

“If you want to operate out of three bases, or sometimes four, you want to have a fifth ship,” said Wooton, adding that ensures solid coverage, given each helicopter’s scheduled maintenance each year.

If a fifth helicopter is added, it’s unclear what its tail number will be. Mercy Flight said N507TJ – the registration of the helicopter involved in the fatal crash in Elba – is permanently retired.

The healing from that incident continues today.

Mercy Flight
Mercy Flight President Margaret Ferrentino attends a memorial service honoring fallen Mercy Flight pilot James Sauer at Patriots and Heroes Park in Lancaster on July 18.

Recently, the National EMS Memorial Service, which pays tribute to EMS first responders killed in the line of duty, arrived in Western New York for a procession and ceremony. There, Sauer was honored – the latest show of community support.

“Nothing will ever make the pain of losing Jim and Doug go away,” Ferrentino said. “But I’ll tell you, all of that just helps tremendously.”