Life Star made a rare non-emergency landing in honor of the service’s 30th annniversary, providing onlookers at Westfarms with a chance with the opportunity to see the helicopter and meet the crew.
By Ronni Newton
Over the past 30 years, Life Star, the critical care air medical service owned by Hartford Hospital, has transported more than 20,000 patients, and on Saturday a crew landed one of the helicopters in the parking lot at Westfarms on the West Hartford/Farmington border, affording the public a rare chance to see the aircraft in a non-emergency situation.
Senior pilot Richard Magner was at the helm of Life Star’s first flight on June 18, 1985, when the crew came to the aid of a car accident victim on Route 44 in Canton. On Saturday, he marked the service’s 30th anniversary when he piloted the American Eurocopter BK-117 helicopter to an expert landing in the Westfarms parking lot.
“Thirty years goes fast,” said Magner, a Vietnam War army veteran who lives in Glastonbury and moved to the area from Pensacola, FL, in 1985 to take the Life Star job. “What strikes me time and again is when we pick up a patient and can tell that the patient is better by the time we get to the hospital,” he said.
Although most probably think of Life Star landing on highways and in parks, to transport critically injured people from an accident scene, Magner said that’s only a small part of what they do. “The vast majority of what we do is transport patients from tertiary to major hospitals,” he said.
Life Star is owned by Hartford Hospital, and its headquarters is a helipad on the top of the hospital building in Hartford. However, the service covers a 150-nautical-mile radius and transports patients, at speeds of up to 155 mph, to the nearest appropriate facility. The service handles patients in Connecticut as well as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and portions of upstate New York, Vermont and New Hampshire.
Flight nurse Nick Mancini, a Burlington resident, has worked for Life Star for more than four years. He started his career as an EMT and has been a nurse for 14 years, and said he went through extensive training, including nearly nine years working in the ICU, before being assigned to the Life Star crew. “I always wanted to do this,” Mancini said.
Mancini said that a flight nurse and flight respiratory therapist are the two medical professionals on board every flight, and both are dual certified. “We essentially function as second year residents, but there’s always a doctor we can consult with,” he said.
The aircraft is intended to transport only one patient, but Mancini said that it can be set up with two stretchers. However, he said, “If we know there’s going to be a second patient, we launch the other aircraft immediately.”
Life Star currently has two helicopters, and four pilots. It is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. The service is used most often for trauma, cardiac, pediatric, and neonatal cases.
On average, Life Star makes three flights per day, or between 1,000 and 1,200 flights per year. They use VFR (visual flight rules) based on the cloud ceiling and visibility to determine whether or not it’s safe to fly.
There has only been one accident during the 30 years, a June 1992 landing on I-91 that took the life of West Hartford nurse Jennifer Hodges. “That was a difficult time. We made some adjustments in our culture and we have much more safety awareness,” Magner said.
Magner said he personally has never had any scary moments or emergencies related to aviation issues while flying one of the helicopters.
Mancini said the strangest place the helicopter has ever had to land is someone’s backyard. The minimum space needed to land measures 85 by 75 feet, he said.
West Hartford Fire Department Lt. Kevin Ingraham, who was on hand at the celebratory landing, said that Life Star rarely lands in town because West Hartford is in such close proximity to several major Level 1 trauma centers that it’s faster in most cases to use an ambulance. “They are a resource, and if it’s quicker with Life Star we will do that,” Ingraham said.
It’s typically someone from a fire department, or other qualified emergency personnel on the scene, who makes the decision to call Life Star, said Ingraham. He used to work in Cromwell where he often called for the service.
“We allow people to live much better and more productive lives than they would have without our efforts,” said Magner.
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