SitNews - Stories in the News - Ketchikan, Alaska

Airlift Northwest upgrading local services
By Marie L. Monyak


May 04, 2006

Ketchikan, Alaska - Wednesday evening Airlift Northwest, an emergency air medical transportation organization, hosted the monthly After Hours event at Steamers Restaurant. After Hours is a once a month networking activity sponsored by the Greater Ketchikan Chamber of Commerce to allow members to better understand the workings of the business hosting the event in a casual and relaxed setting accompanied by light refreshments and hor de' oeuvres.

Airlift Northwest is a not-for-profit organization founded by three medical facilities; Children's Hospital and Regional Medical Center, Harborview Medical Center and University of Washington Medical Center and they maintain seven bases located throughout the Pacific Northwest and Southeast Alaska.

jpg Airlift Northwest crew

Airlift Northwest crew with Chamber President Joe Johnston on left back row and
Airlift NW founder and medical director Michael K Copass on far right.
Photo by Marie L. Monyak

President and Founder of Airlift Northwest, Michael K Copass, MD spoke briefly to the gathering, "It's been a privilege to take care of the people up here and I hope you'll allow us to continue in our quiet and intense way." Copass reminded everyone that his organization has been serving Southeast Alaska since 1981 and has facilitated the transport of almost 3000 people from Ketchikan for further medical treatment down South. We're proud of our record and we've worked hard to serve this community."

With a more visible presence in recent weeks, Airlift Northwest is upgrading their services by establishing a local base of operations in Ketchikan. Rather than rotating two pilots and two nurses between Ketchikan and Seattle, staff will be assigned to and living in Ketchikan to assist in providing a quicker and more efficient response to medical emergencies.

According to Shelly Deering, Airlift Northwest's Chief Flight Nurse, "We've hired two new nurses who will be assigned to Ketchikan and they're currently spending two weeks in Seattle receiving training and clinical time. Once the nurses arrive in town they will continue their training on real patients." The training and experience of the nurses is critical as Deering explained, "Patients aren't always stabilized. For example, if we respond to a call on Prince of Wales Island or on a cruise ship, they don't always have the resources to stabilize a patient so it's up to our nurses to do that."

We will probably be hiring three more nurses and we've already rented a house for them. "When asked where the new base is located, Deering explained, "The house we've rented is our temporary base of operations right now but we're looking for an office. As you know, the logistics here can be daunting so we want the nurses to help in deciding if they can better serve the community and their mission by setting up their base in Ketchikan or on Gravina Island."

In describing his medical team in Ketchikan, Copass said, "All of our nurses come from Trauma or ICU departments enabling them to provide a higher level of care. You're technically in a Harbor View [Medical Center] Trauma Care Unit when you're on our plane. When responding to a call our nurses go to the hospital to ascertain if the patient is stable enough to be transported and if they are the nurses then package the patient." When asked to explain what packing the patient meant, Copass replied, "It's the procedure of preparing the patient to sustain a one and a half hour flight at 35,000 feet."

The fixed wing aircraft that Copass said would be flying at 35,000 feet are Learjet 35A's with a cruising speed of 500 miles per hour with a range of 1500 miles. Carl Campbell, President and Chairman of the Board of Executive Flight, Inc, explained their relationship to the air medical transport organization, "We have a 5 year renewable contract with Airlift Northwest to provide them with the fixed wing aircraft and furnish the flight crew and maintenance. We currently have 5 pilots assigned to Ketchikan."

Don Harter, one of the five pilots Campbell mentioned, is also the Manager and Director of Operations. When asked how long it takes from the time they receive a call out to actually departing the Ketchikan Airport, Harter hesitatingly replied, "Well, in Juneau it's only 30 to 40 minutes but in Ketchikan it takes extra time because we're dependant on the ferry. There are always two pilots on every flight and they ride over [to the airport] in the Aero Services skiff to get the plane out of the hanger then we wait on the ferry to bring the ambulance over." Also, according to Harter, with a crew that consists solely of 5 pilots, minor maintenance is provided by aircraft mechanic Josh Murdock of Pacific Airways but major mechanical maintenance and repairs are accomplished at Executive Flight's headquarters in Wenatchee, Washington.

With all of these pilots, nurses and Learjet's stationed in Ketchikan one must wonder about the cost of the average medical transport to Seattle from Ketchikan. Copass said, "The current cost is about $22,000 to $25,000, it varies dependant on whether it's a scheduled flight which would be less than an acute care flight which would of course be higher." As Airlift Northwest is a not-for-profit organization Copass said, "We charge the insurance company and if there is a balance or if the patient doesn't have insurance we do not send the account to collections but rather encourage a payment program even if it's just $5 a month. We have some people that have been paying $5 a month for years and we're happy with that."

So why set up a base in Ketchikan? It all comes down to service, according to Copass, "We've flown tens of thousands of people from Southeast and we found we can serve the people here more efficiently in this manner."


Marie L. Monyak is a freelance writer living in Ketchikan, Alaska.
A freelance writer is an uncommitted independent writer
from whom a publisher, such as SitNews, can order articles for a fee.
For information about Monyak's freelance writing services and costs contact her at mlmx1[at]

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