DANVILLE, Pa. – More than 100 years, ago Geisinger was founded on Abigail Geisinger’s vision of bringing the best health care to a rural community. The mission of fulfilling that vision continues today, and the Geisinger Life Flight program plays a major part in doing so. Now celebrating 40 years of providing life-saving care to critically ill and injured people, Life Flight is here to quickly transport patients who need advanced care.
Geisinger Life Flight lifted off with one aircraft on July 1, 1981, and has grown to become the second-largest air ambulance program in Pennsylvania. The first aircraft, a single-engine Alouette, has been replaced by nine state-of-the-art twin-engine aircrafts and two specially designed critical care ground transport trucks. Through the past 40 years, Life Flight has transported more than 75,000 patients and now averages more than 3,600 transports per year.
Starting with a staff of about a dozen crew members, Life Flight now has about 150 crew members, including pilots, flight nurses, flight paramedics, communications specialists, emergency vehicle operators, maintenance and administrative staff. Each crew member plays an integral part in ensuring the seamless transition of care from emergency scenes or between hospitals to get patients as quickly as possible to the care they need.
“When Life Flight is requested, the patient needing this service is getting the highest level of care available outside of a hospital,” said Jerry Splitt, R.N., Geisinger Life Flight program director and critical care nurse who has been with the program in different roles for 33 years. “For 40 years, Life Flight has been dedicated to serving people in their toughest moments. Our helicopters and ambulances are mobile intensive care units, and we’re proud to be able to provide the level of care we offer to our neighbors throughout Pennsylvania.”
Geisinger continues to invest in the Life Flight program. Recently, Life Flight took ownership of its newest aircraft, an EC-145, and is retiring the oldest aircraft in the fleet. Additional investments include expanding the program through an air medical collaboration with St. Luke’s University Health Network, investing in equipment to allow crews to carry blood product and perform transfusions, and investing in the construction of a new helipad at Geisinger Jersey Shore Hospital.
“This program is more than helicopters, because it’s about the care our crews are able to provide to people in rural areas when they need it most,” said Andrea Wary, R.N., Geisinger associate vice president of emergency medicine. “This program started because we realized there were patients of all ages who needed to get to hospitals faster. It all leads back to Abigail’s plan of bringing high-quality health care to people in a rural community.”
About 70 percent of Life Flight transports are inter-facility transports, meaning a patient is transported from one facility to another facility for a higher-level of care. This includes patients suffering from traumatic injuries, strokes, cardiac arrest, or other life-threatening illnesses. Life Flight crews partner with physicians from hospitals throughout Pennsylvania and neighboring states to ensure seamless care between facilities, whether they’re transporting a newborn to a neonatal intensive care unit or an adult to a comprehensive stroke center.
The other 30 percent of transports are responses to emergency calls throughout the service area. The Life Flight team works closely with regional emergency medical services (EMS) professionals and other first responders to quickly assess emergency situations and transport people in need of health care.
“Our flight crews are prepared to handle just about any kind of medical emergency, because they never know what they’re going to encounter on their shifts,” said David Schoenwetter, D.O., Geisinger Life Flight medical director. “Life Flight’s mission is to do what’s best for the patient, and our crews are dedicated to caring for patients in their most difficult times. For 40 years this program evolved, and today we are able to bring high-end critical care out of the hospital and into the field. We’re proud of the high level of care and service we can bring to our communities.”
Education has been an important component to the Life Flight program since its inception. Geisinger Medical Center offers an emergency medicine residency program, which allows emergency medicine resident physicians to serve a rotation with Life Flight. Nearly 300 residents have been trained through the program and play an important role by providing on-scene medical command direction for the flight crews.
Community support for the Life Flight program has also been important and allows crews to provide care for the youngest patients. Donations to the Children Miracle Network at Geisinger Janet Weis Children’s Hospital has allowed Life Flight to purchase critical care ground trucks and specialized isolettes to care for newborns and babies. The isolettes help maintain a baby’s temperature and provide security during transport. Specially trained neonatal transport nurses accompany these transports and can assist with respiratory support and mechanical ventilation.
Six of the nine Life Flight aircraft are on duty around-the-clock from bases at Penn Valley Airport near Selinsgrove; University Park Airport near State College; Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport in Avoca, Williamsport Regional Airport in Montoursville; Minersville, Schuylkill County; and Jake Arner Airport near Lehighton. Critical care ground ambulances are based at Geisinger Medical Center in Danville and Avoca. Life Flight is fully accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport System and holds its own Air Carrier certificate through the FAA.
LIFE FLIGHT STATS
- Lifetime transports: 75,000
- Average transports per year: 3,600
- Aircraft: 9 (six in service 24/7)
- Critical Care Ground Trucks: 2 (available 24/7)
- Employees: Approximately 150
- Average aircraft flight speed: 138 miles per hour (120 knots)
- Aircraft are fully inspected every 800 flight hours from the in-house maintenance crew
LIFE FLIGHT TIMELINE
- 1981 Life Flight begins servicing the region from base at Geisinger Medical Center
- 1988 Life Flight 2 begins service at GMC (alongside Life Flight 1)
- 1993 Life Flight 2 is remote based to the Bellefonte Airport, Centre County
- 1998 Life Flight 2 moves to University Park Airport, Centre County
- 2001 Life Flight 3 begins service at Avoca (Wilkes-Barre Scranton International Airport)
- 2005 Life Flight 4 begins service at Montoursville (Williamsport Regional Airport)
- 2006 Life Flight 5 begins service in Schuylkill County, in collaboration with Good Will Fire Department
- 2016 Critical care ground transport ambulance begins service from GMC
- 2017 Geisinger and St. Luke’s University Health Network sign an air medical collaboration agreement
- 2018 Life Flight 6 beings service at Jake Arner Memorial Airport, Lehighton, to support the air medical collaboration
- 2019 Life Flight 1 moves to Penn Valley Airport near Selinsgrove
- 2019 Helicopters began to carry blood product
- 2019 Second critical care ground transport ambulance begins service in Avoca
- 2021 Life Flight takes ownership of newest aircraft
- 2021 Geisinger Jersey Shore Hospital completes helipad project
Geisinger is committed to making better health easier for the more than 1 million people it serves. Founded more than 100 years ago by Abigail Geisinger, the system now includes 10 hospital campuses, a health plan with more than half a million members, a research institute and the Geisinger College of Health Sciences, which includes schools of medicine, nursing and graduate education. With more than 25,000 employees and 1,700+ employed physicians, Geisinger boosts its hometown economies in Pennsylvania by billions of dollars annually. Learn more at geisinger.org or connect with us on Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.