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When seconds count

Leesburg, Loudoun, Northern Virginia, Medical, Medevac, PHI Medical, Air Care 3, Melody Meehan, Brian Gubesch, Mark ShiflettTimes-Mirror Staff Photo/Beverly Denny PHI Air Medical pilot Brian Gubesch (not pictured), flight paramedic Mark Shiflett and flight nurse Melody Meehan are always ready to take off in their helicopter for a rescue during their 12- or 24-hour shifts at Leesburg Executive Airport.
After five hours of waiting, an alarm and radio pierce throughout the crew headquarters, as they spring into action.

Grabbing helmets, log books and other mission critical equipment, they are out the door and on the way to their mode of transportation, a twin-engine German-made Eurocopter EC135 medevac helicopter.

After removing straps and hooks securing the chopper and a quick and thorough safety check, the pilot receives the OK from the crew signaling they are ready for liftoff. The helicopter slowly gains altitude, leaving Leesburg Executive Airport as it heads toward Fauquier Hospital in Warrenton to pick up a patient for transport to Inova Fairfax Hospital.

In flight

Looking around the helicopter cabin, one would think it is a relaxing office environment as opposed to a helicopter built to transport patients in serious condition quickly and efficiently.

For PHI Air Medical Pilot Brian Gubesch, Flight Nurse Melody Meehan and Flight Paramedic Mark Shiflett, this is just another day at the office, albeit an office with a wonderful view of the Northern Virginia landscape from 1500 feet in the air.

Many might think the atmosphere on a medevac helicopter would be somewhat high speed and a little frantic, since the crews job is all about saving lives.

For the crew of Air Care 3 – their call sign – their professionalism and expertise exudes a sense of calmness and confidence as they go about their work.

The headset is filled with garbled speak only a pilot, navigator or crewman would understand. It's explained the garbled numbers and words are other aircraft flying through, landing or taking off from Dulles, Manassas, Leesburg and other airports airspace.

After loading the patient, who is suffering from a heart attack, at Fauquier Hospital, the helicopter is back in the air flying over landmarks like Jiffy Lube Live and Lake Manassas. Traveling parallel to Interstate 66, the Manassas Airport Tower radios a warning to steer clear of Manassas airspace due to an ongoing airshow. Planes in the distance are doing loops which can be seen do to the smoke the jets leave in their wash.

With a short 40-minute ride, the chopper approaches its destination on the rooftop helipad of the new Inova Fairfax Heart and Vascular Institute. It slows as it descends to a soft touch down.

Meehan and Shiflett move at a steady pace as they transport the patient into the building. After 20 minutes, they emerge for the flight back to base.

During the flight, Loudoun County is easily recognized in the distance by the Washington Redskins new practice bubble and the always building traffic on Route 7.

“See that dot there in front of us crossing Route 7? That's him on your headset talking to the Dulles Tower, right now,” Gubesch explains as the chopper teeters on the edge of Dulles International Airport airspace during the return from Inova Fairfax Hospital to Leesburg. “He is about 700 feet above us and I will be passing behind him.”

On final approach to Leesburg, the helicopter positions itself for landing and sets down just over two hours after it left.

After locking down the aircraft and the chopper already guzzling new fuel, the crew heads back to its headquarters to conduct the required hours of paperwork that comes with each flight and replenish used medical materials.

As always they are ready to go again at a moments notice.

A leading provider in air medical services

At 8 a.m. every day, there is a shift change at Leesburg in the Crew Headquarters of the PHI Air Medical team, Air Care 3.

PHI Air Medical is the leading air ambulance provider across the country, providing air medical services and outreach education to local communities and leading healthcare systems.

The Leesburg base primarily serves the entire Northern Virginia area, aside from Fairfax County, who operates its own medevac through the Fairfax County Police program.
In Virginia alone, PHI Air Medical has bases in Leesburg, Manassas, Fredericksburg, Front Royal, Harrisonburg and Lynchburg.

There are two different types of flights the medevac crew conducts. An inter-facility flight transports a patient from facility to facility for more extensive care. A scene flight is directly picking up a patient at the scene of an accident or medical emergency.

"On average, our aircraft based in Leesburg receives one to two patient transport requests per day. Approximately 65 percent of these requests are inter-facility transports. The remaining 35 percent of our flight requests are directly to the scene of an accident or medical emergency,” Keener said. “Around 70 percent of these scene transports originate through the Loudoun County 911 system. The patients are triaged and initially cared for by county EMTs and paramedics. They are then transported to the closest appropriate facility by our medical crew, who cares for or treats the patient's specific medical emergency."

Air Care 3's flight crew consists of three specialists, including a pilot, flight paramedic and a flight nurse. Pilots operate on a 12-hour shift and the rest of the crew are on 24-hour shifts, with the occasional 36-hour shift mixed in.

According to Pilot Gubesch, the aircraft has a wide range of redundancies allowing it to be operated if something were to go wrong during flight. For instance, the aircraft can fly on one engine if needed.

One of the crew

Gubesch, a resident of Hamilton, has been flying since 1984. His extensive experience covers both airplanes and helicopters.

After 31 years of service to the Virginia State Police, Gubesch retired, took two days off and promptly started flying for Air Care 3.

He has been credited with helping start the Virginia State Police aerial unit, flying both helicopters and airplanes beginning in 1984.

While working for the Virginia State Police, Gubesch flew a variety of missions, including transports, search and rescue, medevacs and more.

At Air Care 3, Gubesch's role is pretty simple.

“My role is to facilitate the safe operation of the aircraft and to get the crew to the hospital or scene as quickly as possible,” Gubesch said. “First and foremost we are all about safety here and a majority of our down-time is spent ensuring the safe operation of the aircraft.”

Shiflett, who lives in the Fredericksburg area, is the flight paramedic.

After starting as a firefighter paramedic in Spotsylvania County at the age of 16, Shiflett made the transition to flying at 26. He has been with Air Care 3 for six years and lives about five minutes from PHI Air Medical's Fredericksburg base. Still Shiflett commutes the two hours to Leesburg for work.

“I knew from the time I was little, seeing fire trucks go by, that was what I wanted to do. I spent most of my teenage years at the firehouse, which kept me out of trouble,” Shiflett said. “The most enjoyable thing about my job is the schedule. I work seven to eight days a month and have lots of free time to spend at home with the wife and kids. Your also helping people, which is what it is all about.

“In most instances, we are who you call in your worst moments and to know we are able to help get you to where you need to be quicker is pretty gratifying,” Shiflett said.

Meehan is a resident of Ashburn and is originally from Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. Meehan has been in the U.S. since 1994.

After volunteering in a therapeutic riding program in Canada, she chose nursing as her career and moved to the states after graduating nursing school.

With stints as an air flight nurse in North Dakota, South Dakota and at Vanderbilt, Meehan settled in Ashburn, where her husband was from in 2005. She has been with Air Care 3 since.

She started out at Leesburg's base as the clinical manager, before she realized she missed flying and rejoined the flight line.

“We get to take care of the sickest of the sick patients and we get to use a lot of critical thinking skills, which is also used in the ICU, but we have the opportunity to be trained on certain skills,” Meehan said. “This job is extremely competitive to get into and working at a large hospital with different experiences helps market candidates.”

Both Shiflett and Meehan work as dual role providers and each can function in all capacities. It is state law in Virginia to have an EMS on the helicopter and a nurse with ICU experience allows the aircraft to carry medications EMTs are not used to seeing in the field.

“The dynamic that bringing a nurse and medic together is we can provide more extensive care than a regular ambulance can, especially with medications where we can carry certain ones we, as EMTs, are not used to seeing in the field,” Shiflett said. “An EMT provides a understanding of scene flights because we are used to ambulances, [landing zones] and how fire trucks and command systems work. So we have both the pre-hospital and hospital levels of care on board and it works pretty well.”

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