On a rainy Monday at about 8 o'clock in the morning the hum of a helicopter echoed against Central Peninsula Hospital's walls. Though it is a familiar sound to the emergency room's physicians and nurses, this landing was special.
"There's a lot of meaning behind this landing," said Becky Hultberg, communications and marketing director at Providence Alaska Medical Center, who stayed overnight on the peninsula to greet the Lifeguard Alaska helicopter as it touched down.
This is the first helicopter to be stationed at Central Peninsula Hospital since the previous one crashed in Prince William Sound in December while en route to Anchorage. Since then, helicopters transported patients from Soldotna to Anchorage via Lifeguard helicopters stationed at Providence. The crash claimed the lives of pilot Lance Brabham, flight nurse John Stumpff, paramedic Cameron Carter and their patient Gaye McDowell.
Hospital dignitaries and staff greeted the helicopter Monday as it sent a blast of air toward them before touching down on the helipad. Almost 10 months after the helicopter and crew stationed at Central Peninsula Hospital went down into Prince William Sound, paramedic Paul Garnet welcomed pilots Stacia Bippus, Charlie Henson and flight nurse John Matthews as they jumped out of the cockpit. Instead of heading back to Anchorage, this helicopter and its crew were here to stay.
"I'm ecstatic, we get to serve the peninsula again," said Garnet, who spoke at the memorial for the crew of the previous helicopter in December. After two years working as a paramedic, Garnet said his attitude toward flying has changed since December. "You hope it never happens to you. It's definitely given everybody a different mind set," he said.
Garnet said the new helicopter is actually a really old helicopter. It's a Bell 212, he said. It was built in 1984.
When the flight crew jumped out of the cockpit, Matt DelRosso, assistant clinical manager for Lifeguard, said the helicopter carries the same capabilities as Central Peninsula Hospital's previous helicopter, a BK helicopter, with capacity for one patient. It also has full spectrum night capabilities, he said.
Since the crash, Lifeguard helicopters have been coming from Anchorage when a patient needs to be transported, a flight that's about 30 minutes long. Matthews said the Soldotna area is probably Lifeguard's biggest customer and the crew can better serve its patients from a location on the central peninsula rather than from Anchorage.
DelRosso said a flight to Seward from Soldotna would take roughly 25 minutes and a flight to Homer would take 30 minutes. But, he said, if the helicopter were flying to Homer from Anchorage the flight would be 35 minutes longer.
Jason Paret, chief financial officer for Central Peninsula Hospital, said having a Lifeguard helicopter stationed in Anchorage also didn't allow for immediate response.
"When it's here, it's here," he said.
Terri Nettles, Paret's executive assistant, also said a helicopter that's stationed at the hospital is good for the community.
"From what we've seen, I didn't realize how dependent we are," she said.
Bippus said she and Henson are pilots from Anchorage where she lives and they'll work on a week on, week off basis.
"It feels good," she said.
After 30 years of flying, Henson said he worked as a pilot on the panhandle of Texas, but Alaska was his first assignment out of Army flight school.
"It's good to be back," he said.
Mechanic Pat Dobson worked on the hospital's BK helicopter before the accident in December. He said he spends at least two hours a day inspecting the helicopter to make sure it's in working order. The pilots inspect just before they take off.
"I'm glad it's back," he said. "I get to go back to work."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com.
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