Chances are good you know someone whose life has been positively affected by Saskatchewan’s own winged angels, known better as the Saskatchewan Air Ambulance service. Generations of heroic men and women with the government’s air ambulance service have been flying to the aid of the sick and injured throughout the province for more than 70 years.
The service is on call 24 hours a day, 365 days a year under most weather conditions. Captain and pilot Brian Shaw says the toughest part of the job is flying in bad weather. “Weather information in some smaller communities is not ideal, and we have to make some hard calls on whether landing is advisable. At the end of the day, when you help save the life of a baby or someone badly in need of surgery, the risks are worth it.”
Created as the first service of its kind in North America, Saskatchewan Air Ambulance took its inaugural flight on February 3, 1946. The first and only aircraft at the time was a single-engine Noordyun Norseman bush plane. Dubbed “Lifeguard,” today’s Air Ambulance service has a fleet of four modern aircraft, each that can carry two patients. The fleet provides emergency medical evacuations to all accessible points in the province, from Uranium City to Shaunavon and points in between.
With upwards of 1,500 flights each year, just one of the crucial support jobs is making sure the planes remain airworthy. Aircraft Maintenance Engineers like Brad Friesen are tasked with ensuring the aircraft meet the safety standards and regulations governed by Transport Canada.
“Think of it this way; each plane puts on more kilometres in a year than your car does in its lifetime,” Brad says. “At a speed of 500 kilometres an hour, it’s critical that we constantly check everything over and over again. We’ve done our job if nobody notices anything.”
Lifeguard regularly responds to evacuations needed for medical emergencies or disaster situations like the Humboldt Broncos bus tragedy. They even fly patients to Centres of Excellence out of province.
Flight crews work in concert with the Ministry of Health and Saskatchewan Health Authority registered nurses and flight paramedics who provide in-flight care. Doctors or special medical teams such as neonatal transport teams join the flights when needed.
At the Air Ambulance hangar in Saskatoon, the task of helping people has literally become a family affair in some cases. Aircraft Maintenance Engineer John Wilson is a second-generation maintenance engineer for the service. His father started maintaining planes at Air Ambulance in 1947, in just its second year of operation.
John says it was kind of destiny that he would become a maintenance engineer for the publicly owned air service. “Dad took me to the airport all the time, so I grew up around planes. I got to fly in one of my dad’s planes when I was four and have been hooked on aviation ever since. I learned early that safety in the air starts with good maintenance on the ground. My goal is to give the pilots and medical crews the best possible aircraft for them to be able to do their best possible job.”
Pilot Jeff Egeland relates several personal stories about why he is so passionate about his job and the people he works with at Air Ambulance. Without the service, he may well have never been born.
“My parents were involved in a horrendous car crash on a rough gravel road near our home area of Medstead when they were just teenagers. Mom’s neck was broken, and she likely would have at least been paralyzed for life if not for Air Ambulance.”
As it turns out, Jeff would have reason to be twice as thankful for the dedicated employees and medical personnel that are part of Air Ambulance. His fiancée’s nephew was evacuated to Edmonton when he was a baby to be treated for an undiagnosed heart defect.
With personal experiences like those, it’s little wonder that Jeff is so proud of the organization he works for and the people he works with at Air Ambulance.
“There’s not a person here I wouldn’t go to the wall for; they and the service itself are very close to my heart,” Jeff says. “I’ve done a lot of flying for many organizations, and none of them are as committed and passionate about what they do.”
The next time you see a small aircraft flying into your town or over the countryside, it could just be your own provincially owned air service helping to save the life of someone you know. In the words of pilot Jeff Egeland, “There’s a reason we all work for Air Ambulance. Everyone is driven by the desire to help people.”
Winged angels, indeed.