New big bird lands at hospital

Don’t wait for an emergency to discover holes in a response plan.

That’s why Whidbey Island Naval Air Station’s new Knighthawk Search and Rescue helicopter landed Thursday morning for the first time at Whidbey General Hospital.

“We have learned a lot from hurricanes Katrina and Rita. In a major emergency, military and civilian emergency medical services (EMS) would collaborate,” said Trish Rose, hospital spokeswoman.

But how would the two systems mesh?

EMS decided to find out.

The Nighthhawk helicopter arrived in descending circles before touching down on the hospital’s helipad, a tiny square of tarmac outlined in orange and blue lights next to the emergency department.

The big bird was greeted by Dr. Paul Zaveruha, medical director for Emergency Medical Services. He was leading one of his regular training sessions for paramedics and emergency medical technicians.

Typically, Airlift Northwest’s smaller civilian helicopters touch down here to whisk severely injured patients away to trauma care hospitals in the region.

But landing a powerful Navy chopper is a different proposition, and a testament to the pilot’s expertise. But there was one glitch.

Dr. Zaveruha joked, “This is fence test day.”

The “wash” from the chopper caused a whirlwind that stirred leaves and branches and lifted one side of the chainlink fence bordering the helipad off its railing.

The hospital would rely on the Navy’s assistance in a major emergency, so it’s better to improve procedures and prevent problems before discovering shortcomings during a crisis, Zaveruha said.

Soon the Navy and civilian medics were happily exchanging information outside the helicopter in their common language peppered with technotalk and acronyms.

Navy Search and Rescue pilots David Adams and Bo Hight waited nearby to carry the Navy medics back to NAS Whidbey in the Nighthawk.

Two Knighthawk, MH-60s helicopters replace three Sea King, UH-3Hs, formerly based at NAS Whidbey. Civilians are familiar with the orange and white paint on the Sea King, while the Knighthawk is orange and gray.

The pilots are pleased with the Knighthawk. There are tradeoffs, but the new aircraft offers the advantages of increased power at higher altitudes, and greater efficiency and speed, they said in an interview.

Navy medics Nick Hall and Greg Highfill were equally enthusiastic, especially about the big bird’s capacity to carry more patients in the airborne ambulance.

In a mass-casualty type of emergency, the Knighthawk cabin has room for three or four stretchers or up to 14 people standing, the Navy medics said.

The search and rescue teams respond to military and civilian emergencies where people are caught in inaccessible mountainous terrain or in the water. The teams responded to several emergencies last month while flying the newly-arrived Knighthawks. They plucked a woman with a broken ankle from Mount Baker, airlifted seven people from Mt. Baker and hauled a man from the waters off Camano Island.

The Knighthawk follows in the wake of the Sea King’s impressive history of no accidents while operating here since 1981. The search and rescue teams saved 1,223 lives in the past 24 years, both civilian and military, Navy officials said.

While the Sea King is gone, it won’t be forgotten. The last one left NAS Whidbey on Sept. 28 and can be viewed at the Evergreen Aviation Museum in McMinnville, Ore.

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