A classic act: Classic Air Medical

The Colorado Plateau contains some of the most remote and wildly scenic landscapes in the United States. Spreading an estimated 240,000 square miles (385,000 square kilometers) across Colorado, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, the Plateau’s high deserts, forests, and vast expanses of eroded red sandstone create magnificent natural beauty. The region is home to 10 national parks including Zion and Grand Canyon, as well as dozens of national monuments and wilderness areas. Its wild, unspoiled beauty attracts millions of visitors annually.

From its beginnings in 1988 as a part-time single helicopter operation, Utah-based Classic Air Medical has matured into a prominent air medical and SAR provider, serving some of the most primitive yet breathtaking regions in the western U.S. Dan Megna Photo
From its beginnings in 1988 as a part-time single helicopter operation, Utah-based Classic Air Medical has matured into a prominent air medical and SAR provider, serving some of the most primitive yet breathtaking regions in the western U.S. Dan Megna Photo
Advertisement

In the early 1980s, this natural grandeur was a calling for two brothers from Salt Lake City, Utah. For Brent and Mark Henderson, Lake Powell, on Utah’s southern border with Arizona, was a favorite destination. It was remote, set hundreds of miles from the nearest large city and connected by only a few ribbons of desolate two-lane highway. Along with family and friends, the brothers loved spending time exploring the lake’s nearly 2,000 miles (3,200 kilometers) of shoreline set beneath towering red sandstone cliffs.

The brothers were entrepreneurs and business partners, owning and operating a number of roller skating rinks. Together, the pair had become quite successful. But when a neighbor approached them with a business opportunity to bankroll a helicopter, one can imagine it was met with skeptical curiosity. After all, the brothers had no experience in aviation whatsoever.

At the time, seismic work supporting oil-and-gas exploration was expanding throughout the region and the neighbor, who was a helicopter pilot, recognized the opportunity. He proposed that the brothers purchase a Bell 206 and he would operate the aircraft to generate revenue. The brothers considered it a sound opportunity and made the investment. This was the surprising beginning of what would eventually become Classic Air Medical, which today is a major provider of helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) throughout the Colorado Plateau and beyond.

From seismic to medevacs

Beginning in 1984, the operation with the Bell 206 enjoyed much success. By 1987, however, seismic work had slowed considerably and the helicopter was no longer generating adequate revenue. Ultimately, the neighbor had no choice but to walk away from the helicopter, leaving it to the brothers.

Classic medical crews and pilots are equally at home working from improved helipads or rugged outcroppings like this one near Moab, Utah. Dan Megna Photo
Classic medical crews and pilots are equally at home working from improved helipads or rugged outcroppings like this one near Moab, Utah. Dan Megna Photo

When attempts to sell the aircraft failed, the brothers hired a pilot in an effort to keep it working. And because most other helicopter operators had pulled out of the area, the Hendersons were somewhat successful in finding enough work to sustain the helicopter.

Later that year, during a family outing to Lake Powell, the brothers experienced a pivotal moment. A friend’s son took a bad fall from a cliff and was severely injured. It took four long hours to transport him by boat across the lake to medical attention. The brothers then recognized how their helicopter could have greatly reduced the transport time and alleviated so much anguish and suffering.

With events of that day fresh on their minds, the brothers moved swiftly. They sent their helicopter and pilot to the tiny airport in Page, Arizona, on the shores of Lake Powell. They hired two emergency medical technicians as a medical crew and on Memorial Day, 1988, began service as Classic Lifeguard.

Classic employs 163 paramedics and nurses who comprise its two-person medical teams, and 51 rotary-wing pilots. Dan Megna Photo
Classic employs 163 paramedics and nurses who comprise its two-person medical teams, and 51 rotary-wing pilots. Dan Megna Photo

Initially, the program operated only during the peak recreation seasons at the lake, but it was successful enough to become a year-round operation within a couple of years. A second Bell 206 was acquired and the brothers committed their full attention to the business. As they gained experience and confidence, they recognized other opportunities. They acquired more aircraft — including Bell light singles, a Bell 205, and a Eurocopter (now Airbus) AS350 — and expanded operations to include charter, aerial filming, utility, and firefighting contracts.

In November 1991, tragedy struck the small company when Brent Henderson was killed while flying a Bell 206 at the Salt Lake City Airport. He had recently attained his private helicopter rating and was practicing hovering. Reports indicate he lost control and crashed on the runway.

In the dozen or so years that followed, Classic Lifeguard operations in Page evolved. By the mid-2000s, the company had built a hangar and fixed-base operator (FBO) to house the operation. The Bell 206s were replaced with three Bell 407s. Medical staffing transitioned to paramedics and registered nurses, and crews were certified for night vision goggle (NVG) operations. Additionally, a Beechcraft King Air E90 was brought on line, marking the first of the company’s fixed-wing fleet.

The Bell 407GXP - based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, at an elevation of 7,300 feet - is the latest addition to Classic's HEMS fleet. Dan Megna Photo
The Bell 407GXP – based in Los Alamos, New Mexico, at an elevation of 7,300 feet – is the latest addition to Classic’s HEMS fleet. Dan Megna Photo

In 2011, after 23 years operating solely from Page, Classic Lifeguard began seeking expansion opportunities. The company first chose Vernal, Utah, a relatively small town of 10,000 in north-central part of the state. It was a hub for an emerging oil drilling industry and a portal to the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area. Other bases followed, including Riverton, Wyoming, and the outdoor recreation destinations of Moab, Utah, and Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

In 2013, Mark Henderson stepped down as CEO. A portion of the company was sold to an investment group. Classic Aviation Holdings (CAH) was created as parent company. After restructuring, Classic Lifeguard became Classic Air Medical (CAM). But in spite of the corporate influence, CAM retained the culture and feel of the original small, family-run company. That was due in part to Tony Henderson, son of co-founder Mark Henderson, being handed the company reins as CEO.

One unique trait of CAM is the management culture and the relationships with the crews. Because most bases are in somewhat remote locations, far flung from one another, there’s no practical way to micromanage daily operations. Instead, management and flight crews depend on one another’s individual character and competence to forge an authentic culture of trust for one another.

Chief pilot Adam West, left, assists flight nurse Keith Lepsch and paramedic Joe Root in an isolated canyon in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Dan Megna Photo
Chief pilot Adam West, left, assists flight nurse Keith Lepsch and paramedic Joe Root in an isolated canyon in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Dan Megna Photo

Owen Park, a regional assistant chief pilot and lead training pilot for CAM, has high praise for management’s confidence in the crews. “I love flying for Classic,” Park said. “They allow me to do what I’m comfortable with and capable of doing, and I think that’s part of what makes Classic kind of a special operation. They trust us to be responsible and allow us to take the initiative to do what we’ve got to do.”

Echoing a similar sentiment is CAM pilot Geoff Rodgers: “Many times you find yourself at one o’clock in the morning in a situation in the mountains where you need to make decisions. And the crews and the pilots are empowered to make those decisions. It really is a culture based on trust; they trust us to do the job properly and we trust our management team that there will not be repercussions if we make mistakes or if we have to go ‘outside the box.’ But let me emphasize, we are not cowboys. There’s a very strong safety culture here at Classic.”

Nowhere is that trust put to the test more than in CAM’s search-and-rescue (SAR) role. SAR is an important mission for the crews and an invaluable resource for the small communities they serve. CAM provides two hours of free aerial support to any SAR mission undertaken by local public safety agencies.

The cockpit panel of the Bell 407GXP with its Garmin G1000 avionics suite, Technisonic TDFM 9000 multi-band AM/FM radio, and Flightcell DZMx for satellite and cellular voice and data transmission and aircraft tracking. Dan Megna Photo
The cockpit panel of the Bell 407GXP with its Garmin G1000 avionics suite, Technisonic TDFM 9000 multi-band AM/FM radio, and Flightcell DZMx for satellite and cellular voice and data transmission and aircraft tracking. Dan Megna Photo

While absorbing the costs of such flights does impact the bottom line, Tony Henderson said, “We do it just to be good helpers in the community. It’s our way of giving back. And it’s definitely appreciated out in those places.”

Expanding its reach

Since 2013, CAM has maintained a steady expansion across the Colorado Plateau and into neighboring Wyoming and Idaho, adding an average of two to three helicopter bases annually. The company is presently operating 11 bases, each in relatively small communities that see significant numbers of outdoor recreational visitors. These are community-based programs, for the most part, and not affiliated with any particular hospital. Like a number of other community-based air medical providers, CAM offers an annual membership program to cover out-of-pocket costs for individuals who may require their services.

In the past two years, CAM has responded to 3,984 HEMS calls (1,854 for the fixed-wing fleet) and provided helicopter support for 186 SAR missions. The present HEMS fleet consists of one Bell 429 and 11 Bell 407s including two GX models and one GXP. Pilots appreciate the performance of the aircraft in the many diverse environments in which they operate, as well as the advanced instrumentation found in the newer models.

Aircraft maintenance technician Pete Malcom is one of three techs assigned to the Page, Arizona, base. Dan Megna Photo
Aircraft maintenance technician Pete Malcom is one of three techs assigned to the Page, Arizona, base. Dan Megna Photo

Rodgers, a former U.S. Army pilot who also flew civil helicopters for many years before taking an 18-year hiatus, is now back in the air with CAM flying the 407GX out of Los Alamos, New Mexico. “I flew Hueys and OH-58s in the Army and the 407 is right between the two in size and performance. It’s a comfortable aircraft. I’ve never not had enough power and it’s a fun flying machine. And having only flown old ‘steam gauges’ and now flying the GX with the Garmin 1000, it was truly a Rip Van Winkle moment. It has so many amazing capabilities for flight planning.”

The Bell 429 was recently acquired to serve Pocatello, Idaho. While this too is a community-based program, it does have an affiliation with a local hospital. Henderson said, “We still have the nurses, the paramedics, the pilots, the billing. But we use the hospital’s NICU [neonatal intensive care unit] team and we pay [the hospital] when they’re used.”

CAM recently enhanced its patient care capability aboard all aircraft with ultrasound imaging. Utilizing the Philips Lumify portable ultrasound with a smart tablet, CAM medical crews have advanced capabilities to better monitor and diagnose patients in the field and in flight.

Since 2004, Classic medical crews and pilots have been operating with NVGs. They're presently making the transition to Gen-3 White Phosphor systems. Dan Megna Photo
Since 2004, Classic medical crews and pilots have been operating with NVGs. They’re presently making the transition to Gen-3 White Phosphor systems. Dan Megna Photo

“The ultrasound replaces the stethoscope,” explained CAM flight nurse and ultrasound trainer Aaron Friel. “In the air using a stethoscope we can’t hear what’s going on in a patient’s lungs. So we use the ultrasound to see what’s going on. We can see the heart pumping, how it’s pumping, if it’s effective or not. It’s also way more accurate in diagnosing different types of shock. I’ve used it for everything and it’s phenomenal. We can treat patients more effectively than ever before. If you’re dying, you want me and an ultrasound taking care of you.”

Beyond HEMS programs throughout the greater Colorado Plateau, CAM/CAH has other air medical, utility, and charter operations. In Puerto Rico, for example, an AS350 B2 and an Airbus EC135 support an air medical contract. Domestically, a fleet of eight fixed-wing aircraft — including four Pilatus PC-12s, a King Air E90, a Embraer Phenom 100, and two Bombardier LearJet 31s — operate from bases throughout the Plateau region and a base in Alaska for EMS and charter.

The company maintains its headquarters in Woods Cross, Utah, just outside Salt Lake. It’s co-located with their maintenance hub, Helicopter Services of Utah (HSU). The 12,500-square-foot facility is a full-service Federal Aviation Administration-approved part 145 repair station, and is recognized by both Bell and Airbus Helicopters as an approved service center.

Dan Megna Photo

Field maintenance is handled by mechanics assigned to each individual base. They work 20 days on and 10 days off, and are supported by a number of “rovers” who rotate through the different bases, providing coverage for time off and larger projects.

Because many of the communities CAM serves are small with limited EMS resources, CAM developed a program to improve EMS education. According to CAM chief pilot Adam West, “We wanted to be able to provide education to rural hospitals and rural EMS agencies that don’t have access to advanced simulation training mannequins. So we created a training trailer that is used to provide these people with their education as well as provide our own people their annual competency.”

The trailer has two sections; one replicates a full functioning hospital emergency room. The other is configured as the medical suite aboard the company’s Bell 407s, complete with original Bell parts and capable of simulated NVG operations. While personnel are inside training on scenarios with mannequins, those outside can watch and listen on externally mounted TV monitors.

In addition to its HEMS fleet of 11 Bell 407s and a Bell 429, Classic also operates a small utility fleet consisting of two Bell 206s - an L-3 and an L-4 - and an Airbus AS350 B2. Dan Megna Photo
In addition to its HEMS fleet of 11 Bell 407s and a Bell 429, Classic also operates a small utility fleet consisting of two Bell 206s – an L-3 and an L-4 – and an Airbus AS350 B2. Dan Megna Photo

This year marks 30 years since the Henderson brothers launched their fledging air medical operation on the shores of Lake Powell. Since then, the Colorado Plateau region has experienced an increase in permanent residents and a significant upsurge in the numbers of outdoor recreation users, many pursuing extreme sports and other high-risk activities. Henderson said, “In my state and in the surrounding states we have lots of recreation areas: Lake Powell, Moab, Steamboat… They all have lots of visitors and all kinds of recreation. And any time you have outdoor recreation you also have accidents.”

These trends have driven CAM’s growth and evolution as an operator. Today the company is a truly indispensable EMS and SAR resource for the communities it serves. CAM personnel strive to integrate themselves with the locals and build genuine relationships with small businesses, residents, and EMS agencies. In addition to community involvement, West said, “As a company we’re diligent in our efforts to improve safety, training, communication and to strengthen our family culture on a daily basis. Our ultimate goal is to simply serve, then let our performance speak for itself.”

Advertisement

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *