It was company policy that a
medivac flight had priority over all other flights. It always seemed
that they happened in nasty weather though. I had several limits
for flying in the coalfields, the first being my new passenger limit.
If a new passenger was uncomfortable with the flight I tried to turn back
or set down for a while and wait out some weather if need be. Its
no fun riding in a chopper that somebody just got sick in and believe me,
air sickness is catchy as all git out.
The next limit was my regular passenger limit. This is when my regular passengers will begin to show a definite concern for the flight. Since I don't want a passenger problem in the ship I don't let it get that far.
The limit after that is my limit. That is when I cancel out because I don't want to be bothered by the excitement of going inadvertent IFR. The flights not worth it and I sure don't want someone yelling in my ear to land this thing, NOW! At this limit there are still no beads of sweat forming on my forehead.
The last limit is my medivac limit. That's what we had to do in Vietnam, on occasion, to get the teams out. If I have to go IFR to get someone to a hospital then so be it. If I was his only shot at staying alive, then by GOD, I would bring all my training and experience into play do my very best to get that person to the hospital.
Mother Nature, it seems, had established a law for fog in the area which stated, if it was foggy on the Tennessee side of the mountain it would not be foggy on the Kentucky side and vice versa. In the fall and spring, the valleys in the Middlesboro area were often fogged in. If I had to take passengers up north would have to wait out the fog. On some occasions, when I had a deadhead flight up north, I would give the big drag line on the hill a call to see if he was still fogged in. If he was clear, and the fog had lifted enough to clear the bottom of the valley we were in, I would do an instrument takeoff through the small level of remaining fog. This usually meant 15-20 seconds of instrument time. No big deal. If someone was hurt though, then I informed the drag line operator that I was waiting for his call as to when the fog around him was breaking up. When I got that call I was out of there right then and on my way and I had to do that several times.
Two medivac flights stand out in my memory of the several that I did. The first involved a guy that was working at one of the northern jobs and had severed his hand, except for a small piece of skin and tendons. He was at the main area hospital in Hazard, KY but needed to get to Jewish Hospital, in Lexington, that specialized in severed limb reattachments. I let off my passengers and made for the Hazard airport where they would be waiting. The man was very heavily sedated and put in the back with a nurse. I then departed for Lexington, which was about 45 minutes away.
The weather was getting bad fast and about half way there it had me on the deck. I had everything set up so that if I had to go IFR I could but I sure did not want to do that. About 15 minutes out of Lexington I reached the tower and told them I was inbound under “special” VFR rules and what my present situation was. They then asked if I was declaring an “emergency” and I said “no” but that I needed their ambulance or one from Jewish hospital waiting on us. They said one would be waiting.
I was about 10 miles out when the tower called again and asked the exact extent of the injury. I told them about the severed hand and that the patient could walk but was very heavily sedated. There was a moment of silence, then the tower told me to “hold” my position because a Delta passenger jet was on final. I guess the tower guy was not thinking but the Delta pilot was and immediately declared a “missed approach” and initiated a go-around. The Delta pilot then called me and said that he was more than happy to give up his slot for any medivac flight. We slipped on in and I put her down right next to the waiting ambulance. The nurse asked if we were going back tonight and I said “no”. She then went off with the ambulance and said she would see me in the morning. I believe I heard later that he was immediately taken into surgery, 11 hours worth, and that his hand was saved. Much later still, I heard that his hand was doing OK but that he did have some finger movement restrictions. Hearing that sure made me feel good inside.
The other flight that stands out in my memory was one in which I had to break the rules pertaining to emergency flights. The rules stated that if someone was hurt on the job, he had to be taken to the nearest hospital, which would have been the one in Hazard. A huge wrench had broken, at our northern Buckhorn job, and the piece that broke off hit one of the workers smack in the eye. The eyeball was cracked and fluid was slowly leaking out. Again, I had to bump passengers and headed straight for the small clinic at Buckhorn, KY where they had the worker because it was right near the mine and Hazard was 45 minutes away by car. With the chopper still running, the gentleman was placed in the back of the ship and I was then informed of the situation. By law I had to take him to the Hospital in Hazard (5 minutes away by air) but that he only had about 30 minutes before the leak would lowered his eyeball pressure to where he would lose his eye. Fifteen minutes away by air was the smaller hospital at Harlan, KY, which was the home of a very prominent eye surgeon from India. They had called him and he was there ready for him.
One of “my” rules for the coalfields was “what was good for me was good for you too” and I knew, rules or not, if it was me, I would want to go straight to that eye surgeon. The job boss got on too and off we went for the hospital at Harlan. Only problem was, they didn't have a helipad at the hospital so I had to make one. There was no good place to land and we were running out of time so I set good old Nelliebelle down right next to the front door, on the small driving circle they had there. I guess we rattled every one of their front windows and each one had multiple faces looking out of them at us. I sure am glad I didn't blow any in.
The boss took the gentlemen in. I knew I couldn't shut her down there so I looked around and saw a car leaving from a parking spot near the edge of the parking lot. I hovered over there and determined that antennas wouldn't be a problem and my tail rotor would be clear. I then set her down between the two small cars on either side of me. I sat there and waited for the boss. I hadn't been there but a few minutes when a police car pulls up in front of me. The officer stayed in his car and just stared at me. I put up both hands and made a face like “I don't know”. He then just shook his head, said something into his radio, then left without saying a word to me. About ½ hr later, the boss came out and found me and I took him back to the job. The man had gone straight into surgery and we had beaten the time limit by 5 minutes. About a month later I found out that he had lost most of the sight in that eye but that our timely trip had resulted in the eyeball being saved. It seems that there is a world of difference between having an eyeball that functioned with the other and just a hole and patch there.
There were several other less interesting emergency flights that I did. I was glad they had the policy they did. The men were also glad that Mr. Harbert had established that policy and it just commanded that much more respect for the man.