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Staff for Life pilot manages many variables to bring people to safety

Friday, September 14, 2007 | 2:00 p.m. CDT; updated 5:58 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008
Kyle Rehagen pilots BK 117-B1 helicopters with University Hospital’s emergency response team. As he airlifts patients to safety, speed is his main concern.

COLUMBIA — Perfecting the balance between maximum speed and maximum safety is a part of Kyle Rehagen’s daily life. While working his 12 hour shift, Rehagen is always just moments from take-off. As Columbians flip through stacks of paper in their offices or sleep through the darkest hours of night, Kyle Rehagen transports those who hang in the balance, those who do not have the luxury of time to waste.

Despite the stress of his job, Rehagen exudes a level of comfort in his role.. Perhaps he’s that way because of the 3,500 hours he has spent in the air. Maybe it is a result of the training he received in flight school for the National Guard. Or perhaps flying Blackhawk helicopters in Iraq has made him this way.

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Kyle Rehagen

Personal: Born in Jefferson City; Columbia resident 13 years. Married to Christy Rehagen. They have three children, ages 8, 5 and 1 Hobbies: Relaxing, watching sports, spending time with his children Years on Staff for Life crew: Two

Staff For Life

Flights per year: About 1,200 Range of helicopters based on fuel: up to 200 miles First Flight: Nov. 24, 1982 Fleet: In addition to the helicopter based at University Hospital in Columbia, the hospital helicopters are also stationed in La Monte and Lake of the Ozarks. Players: Air Methods Corp. of Denver provides pilots, helicopter and, operations; University Hospital provides medical staff and treatment.Sources: Leeann Johnson, CFN Assistant manager Helicopter Service; Jeff Hoelscher, Media Relations; and Kyle Rehagen, University Hospital.

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Regardless, he smiles frequently and maintains a relaxed demeanor. Something else about him is unmistakable, though. It is the focus that his profession demands, the calm that makes success possible and the resolve to get everything right every single time he takes off.

Outside of University Hospital on the helipad, one of two landing spots is open. Rehagen’s radio tells him that two helicopters are inbound. Each time, he responds to the transmissions with confidence and efficiency. The call is his top priority. Each one could be the beginning of a flight for someone’s life.

In his black-and-gold jumpsuit and orange-tinted sunglasses, Rehagen moves with confidence around the helipad. A black hat covers his inch-long dark blond hair. He rests one hand on the tail of helicopter, some seven feet off the ground. His other one holds the radio.

The hulking BK 117-B1 has a modest but appealing exterior. It is predominantly black and white, but the MU logo adorns the top of each side panel. It is about 50 feet long and weighs about 3.5 tons.

The dashboard of the craft is lined with gauges. Most of the dials are fairly basic, but since the craft is a twin engine, it is equipped with more systems, which “eases the work load of the pilot,” Rehagen says. The second engine makes the craft faster, too. It cruises at 130 nautical miles per hour — about 150 miles per hour. A trip to Kansas City or St. Louis takes about 45 minutes.

The cargo area smells of leather; the two gray seats that face away from the cockpit are emblazoned with a gold M for Mizzou and a roaring tiger. Further back, a stretcher sits ready and a bench seat lines the side of the cabin. The bench can be transformed into a second stretcher if another patient needs to fly. Should this situation arise, it is the pilot’s job to make the change.

Flight nurse Mary Eagen says the craft can support patients on ventilators, carries blood on board and is equipped with a defibrillator. Still, despite the craft’s numerous on-board capabilities, Eagen knows what makes it priceless. “The biggest thing is the rapid transport,” she says.

After takeoff, only one person controls that.

Once in the air, Rehagen must deal with a barrage of information.

The helicopter is equipped with an intercommunication system, or ICS, that allows pilot and crew to communicate in-flight.

“I can talk back and forth with the crew whenever we have a patient back there,” he says.

Rehagen also communicates through the ICS with the local fire departments on scene, hospitals, the Air Methods communication center in St. Louis and air traffic control. And, of course, he must fly the helicopter.

It’s an incredible amount of stimuli to deal with, and Rehagen has the ability to isolate the communication from the crew if he needs to focus on something else. He makes it clear, however, that they are nothing if not a team.

“We are a crew and the crew knows everything about what’s going on,” he says.

Rehagen’s most memorable call came in the form of a head-on car crash near Warsaw. His radio said that the crash required four aircraft on scene to successfully get all of the injured victims to hospitals. He describes it matter-of-factly.

“I know I have to get them there safely,” he continues. “Safety is huge in my book.”

Sure, Rehagen says, it is difficult to carry injured children because he’s a father, but there is “too much going on up front” for him to get invested in the patient.

In an effort to maximize safety, Rehagen and the other pilots also spend time training local fire departments on how to secure landing zones at a scene. They tell the firefighters what to watch for — power lines overhead, trees — as well as how to secure the area.

As the day begins to fade, a purple helicopter descends slowly out of the sky. The whoop-whoop-whoop of its spinning blades crushes every other sound. The urge to duck or step back returns, even though the craft is easily 40 yards away.

This is the first of two aircraft scheduled to land. The other one is due in 11 minutes. Will this be enough time for the first one to get out before the other one arrives? Sure, Rehagen says. Speed — and safety — are always in control.


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