High Altitude Nursing

No one who’s ever been in a hospital, even as just a visitor, will deny that nursing is a frontline, adrenaline charged job. The nurse you see calmly entering patient information one minute may be racing the next to provide life-saving care.

Yet even among all the demanding nursing specialties, one stands out for its high altitude adrenaline rush. Flight nurses, also known as transport nurses, perform their patient care in helicopters and airplanes.

“These specialized nurses,” says Nurse.org, “provide comprehensive pre-hospital, emergency critical care, and hospital-level care either from the scene of an accident or while transporting inter-facility from hospital to hospital. They are often charged with the care of a vast scope of patient populations.”

It helps to be an adrenaline junkie, Nurse.org agrees. That’s particularly so for nurses working on helicopters. Fixed-wing air ambulances typically transport patients between medical facilities after they’ve been stabilized. Helicopters perform that function too, but they also are summoned to the scene of major accidents and disasters to carry seriously injured victims to trauma centers.

It takes a special personality to perform well, often working alone in the cramped space of an aircraft while doing the same things an ICU or ER nurse in a hospital does.

Flight nurses – rotor wing, air ambulance and commercial medical escort – are almost all RNs. Most jobs require a minimum of 3-5 years’ experience working in an emergency room or ICU. In addition, employers look for certification as a flight registered nurse from the Board of Certification for Emergency Nursing.

Other certifications may also be required, said Bob Bacheler, managing director of Flying Angels, a service that provides RN escorts for non-emergency patients on commercial flights.

Speaking to Minority Nurse, Bacheler said ”165,000 nurses are providing direct patient care in the transport environment.” Men, who comprise about 11% of the nation’s 3.2 million RNs, make up about 18% of flight nurses, he noted.

Average pay for a flight RN is right around $71,000, according to PayScale. But the range is broad. In Seattle, the average for a flight nurse is $88,000.

Kelley Holdren, administrative director and chief flight nurse at the University of Chicago Aeromedical Network, told Nurse.org that pay can be as high as $120,000.

She says the field is competitive and difficult to enter, “but not impossible.” “Flight nurse positions can be found at various teaching/university hospitals and aviation companies that operate in many communities.”

“It’s just an amazing role to be a flight nurse, to be able to make a difference in so many lives, never knowing who you may be picking up to transport, using your critical thinking skills, all while flying around… I couldn’t ask for a better career or office.”

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