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Intermountain Life Flight


Diverse fleet performs wide range of life-saving missions in US and overseas.

By Rafael Henríquez
Managing Editor

The Leonardo AW109 SP, with its maneuverability and agility, is ideally suited for hoist rescues.

Intermountain Life Flight offers critical medical transport services to communities throughout Utah and 6 neighboring states. As part of Intermountain Health, the largest nonprofit health system in the region, it embodies a legacy of compassion and care dating back to the late 1800s.

Established in 1978 at LDS Hospital in Salt Lake City UT, it has evolved into a nonprofit health system employing more than 60,000 people and with operations in Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming. The organization’s mission is to create healthier communities and ensure patient well-being.

Fleet and flight operations

At the heart of Intermountain’s life-saving mission is its aviation division. With a diverse fleet of aircraft, including Leonardo AW109SP helicopters, King Air B200 turboprops, and Bombardier Challenger and Textron Citation CJ4 twin jets, the unit provides rapid medical transport for critically ill or injured patients from remote mountainous regions to bustling urban centers, serving communities with professionalism and dedication.

“We do a lot of patient work with our airplanes all over the country,” says Director of Aviation Operations Kent Johnson. “We do about 4000 patient transports every year.”

Johnson splits his daily activities between flying, working on FAA-related duties, and coordinating activities with 60 pilots and maintenance personnel. However, what keeps him busy lately is a particular task – integrating a recently-acquired aeromedical company onto the Intermountain Life Flight operating certificate, which will bring the fleet size to 55 aircraft.

Intermountain Life Flight crew loads a patient into the Challenger 604.

“We have frequent meetings to make sure integration goes smoothly, taking best practices from both companies” he explains. “In about 3 years, when the merger is complete, we’ll have close to 200 pilots.”

Recruiting and selecting pilots who share Intermountain Life Flight’s commitment to safety and excellence is a top priority. Ultimately, the company aims to build a team with members who are going to be there for a long time.

When hiring pilots, requirements include a minimum of 3000 hours TT and experience in the medical field, although most applicants who join the aviation unit have closer to 5000 hours. Once hired, the company has a pilot development program in which second-in-command (SIC) pilots train to meet pilot-in-command (PIC) standards.

Recognizing the unique challenges of the air ambulance industry, Intermountain Life Flight prioritizes the well-being of its team with benefits such as competitive pay, retirement plans, and a supportive work culture to attract and retain pilots.

While the nature of aeromedical flying doesn’t allow for much planning, Intermountain Life Flight pilots use ForeFlight and ARINCDirect. “We’ve been using ARINC for the Challenger 604,” Johnson explains. “We do have operational control specialists always on duty who are becoming more involved in the flight planning process, but that responsibility still falls mostly on the pilot.”

Pilots work 12-hour shifts, starting at 7 am, on a 7-days-on, 7-days-off rotation. Johnson adds, “We assign day and night shifts to pilots evenly, so they work 4 day shifts and 3 night shifts a week. We also have a night shift from 9 pm to 9 am. And right now, our pilots know what their schedules look like for the rest of the year.”

(L–R) Dir of Ops Kent Johnson, Chief Pilot for R-W Hoist Ops Kent Harrison, Medical Dir Dr Bill Beninati, F-W Chief Pilot Jared Thompson, and Dir of Maintenance Billy Ortega.

Rotary-wing operations

At the head of vertical lift operations is Rotary-Wing Chief Pilot Jerry Bastian. His journey into the world of aviation began in 1984, when he took to the skies for the first time with the US Army.

There he served for 23-plus years, flying primarily Boeing CH-47 Chinook and Bell UH-1 Iroquois helicopters, gaining invaluable experience across various terrains in Germany and Central America.

After retiring from the military, he embarked on a new chapter in his aviation career. He spent time flying for oil and gas companies in the Gulf of Mexico and Alaska in diverse environments and challenging conditions.

He eventually joined the helicopter emergency medical services (HEMS) field, where he applied his wealth of experience to ensure safe and efficient medical transport operations. “I flew for Air Methods in the Denver CO area for 3 years,” he relates. “Then Intermountain Life Flight invited me to come over and fly for them, and I’ve been here for 9 years.”

As chief pilot of rotary-wing operations, Bastian’s responsibilities extend beyond flying. He ensures pilot legality and safety, overseeing training programs, and maintaining compliance with FAA regulations. Safety is always paramount, so he implements rigorous training protocols to uphold the highest standards. “We do all of our training inhouse,” he says. “We have a training director and a couple of instructors who take care of both our VFR and IFR training programs.”

Hoist team members (L–R) Flight Paramedic Troy Harris, Flight Paramedic Alan Bartlome, Flight Nurse Laura Whisenant, and Pilot Richard Dobson.

Intermountain Life Flight AW109SP twin-engine helicopters are equipped with state-of-the-art safety features, including 4-axis autopilots and night vision goggles (NVGs). “As a pilot, I can tell you that NVGs are always a plus when you’re flying to a viewpoint to pick someone up,” he says.

“And the 4-axis autopilot allows us to focus more on flying. If we need to grab an iPad, we have a an autopilot system that can augment our flying, and that is certainly critical in the clouds.”

Bastian’s experiences taught him the importance of prioritizing safety above all else. Learning from past accidents, he implemented measures to prevent future incidents, such as transitioning to an IFR program and establishing enroute decision points to guide pilots in adverse weather conditions.

“Unfortunately, in 2003 we had an accident in bad weather,” he relates. “Our motivation following that was to elevate our training, so we migrated from VFR to an IFR program. We give our pilots check rides every 6 months. The goal is to make our pilots smarter and safer with better flying experiences, but the primary objective is staying out of bad weather.”

Dir of Ops Kent Johnson flying the Challenger 604 on approach to SLC (Intl, Salt Lake City UT).

Hoist operations

Hoist capability is also a critical aspect of Intermountain Life Flight’s mission, as it allows the team to perform vital rescues in challenging terrain and conditions.

Supervising a cadre of 6 pilots who stay current in hoist operations is Kent Harrison, a pilot whose career is defined by a profound commitment to safety and excellence in aviation. His journey in aviation began nearly 40 years ago, and spans from law enforcement to commercial operations.

Hoist operations are based at the company’s OGD (Ogden UT) base, which is equipped with the necessary resources for swift response to emergencies. Here, Harrison and his team stand ready to perform day and night hoist operations, ensuring that individuals in distress receive timely assistance.

Hoist helicopters are on standby, responding to a wide range of missions across Utah. From rescuing critically injured individuals to aiding stranded hikers, Harrison and his team face diverse challenges with unwavering determination.

Bombardier Challenger 604 offers speed and space for critical care transport with intercontinental range.

But their dedication to saving lives extends beyond the skies, as they collaborate closely with local search and rescue teams, reinforcing the importance of teamwork in emergency response efforts. The team performs some 50 hoist missions a year.

As the PIC, Harrison assumes a pivotal role in the success of hoist operations supported by a skilled team of hoist operators and paramedics. He explains, “When I’m flying, I have 2 other team members.

One is a hoist operator who sits behind me on the right hand side of the helicopter. That person operates our rescue hoist. And we use our paramedics too as rescue specialists – they go down and take care of business on the ground.”

Continuous training is essential for maintaining proficiency in hoist operations. Harrison recounts his training experiences, from initial instruction by Swiss HEMS provider Rega to ongoing certification through Air Rescue Systems (ARS). “Originally, we were trained by pilots from Rega,” he says.

Intermountain Life Flight trains SIC pilots who want to become PICs.

“They came to our base and trained our pilots several years ago. Then we contracted with Oregon-based ARS, and they’ve been training us for the past couple of years.”

Compliance with FAA standards is paramount, ensuring the safety and effectiveness of each mission. Despite the challenges, Harrison remains steadfast in his commitment to providing lifesaving support to those in need.

Fixed-wing missions

Intermountain Life Flight’s airplanes operate out of the company’s SLC (Intl, Salt Lake City UT) and SGU (St George UT) bases. Fixed-Wing Chief Pilot Jared Thompson coordinates duties for 26 pilots and manages 5 aircraft – a Bombardier Challenger 604, a Textron Citation CJ4, and 3 King Air B200 turboprops. “One of the King Airs is based in St George,” he explains. “The rest of the fleet operates out of SLC.”

For seamless operations, the fleet is equipped with Collins Aerospace products – the Challenger is fitted with the Pro Line Fusion, while the rest of the fleet operates with Pro Line 21.

Fixed-wing aircraft fly 3 types of mission. The first is what they call emergent transports. “These missions are within 400 miles of SLC,” says Thompson.

Maintenance Representatives Connor Orndorff (L) and Alayna Hudson review aircraft service schedules.

“We get a call to pick up a patient, and we’re expected to be off the ground in 35 minutes. The crew works together on flight planning, gathering all the pertinent information, such as weather and NOTAMs. They load all the medical equipment in the aircraft. And then as soon as the medical crews show up, they blast off.”

The second type of mission is organ transports. “We’ll go anywhere in the US carrying a surgeon and his team to go and harvest the organ,” says Thompson. And the third type of mission they call air medical charter. “These are scheduled flights, and we’ll go anywhere in the world” he continues.

Thompson relates, “The longest transport we did was from Thailand back to the US, where we brought a couple who had been injured on an elephant tour. They needed to get back to the US, so we flew to Thailand, picked them up, and brought them back to Salt Lake City. It took us 4 or 5 days to get all the permits we needed.”

The company employs 26 fixed-wing pilots – most of them qualified to fly at least 2 aircraft types. Thompson adds, “It’s kind of a mix. Our SLC-based pilots are type rated in 2 aircraft, and some of them are type rated in 3.”

Due to the nature of the operation, Thompson prefers to hire pilots who have experience in the EMS field. “Flying EMS is a little bit different,” he explains. “There’s not a lot of support for the pilots, like in an airline or a charter operation.

The communications center staff, consisting of 2 communications specialists and 2 operational control specialists, manage an average of 15 patient transports each day.

Our pilots have to do a lot of the flight planning, they have to check the weather, and most duties they do on their own. They have to be very comfortable being autonomous.”

General hiring requirements include at least 3000 hours TT with 1000 hours of multi-engine flying for PICs, and 800 to 900 hours TT for SICs. They need to be comfortable with IFR systems.

SICs will receive the same training as the PICs in both the King Air 200s and the CJ4. Just as with helicopter pilots, Intermountain Life Flight’s fixed-wing pilots work 12-hour shifts on a 7-days-on, 7-days-off schedule.

SIC Loren Hough is a dual type rated pilot who flies King Airs and the CJ4. She learned to fly in 2019, a year after earning a degree in biology from the University of Central Florida. She moved to Ogden UT pursuing her love for flying and snowboarding in the mountains.

“I knew I had just set myself up for success when I showed up for an interview at Intermountain Life Flight and they told me they had a fixed-wing unit,” she remembers. “I took an intern position for about 6 months, and I was able to go into the hangar and get really close with all the pilots, including Jared (Thompson). Eventually, when they were going to hire an SIC, I put my name in an application and I got the job.”

Hough and her fellow pilots go to FlightSafety International (FSI) for flight training every 6 months. “Since I’m flying 2 airplane types, I’ll go to FSI for Citation CJ4 training in January, and I’ll return 6 months later for the King Airs,” she explains. Hough logs an average of 350 flight hours a year, depending on weather, and is starting training to fly the Challenger 604 this summer.

Nearly half of Intermountain’s fleet tucked way in the maintenance hangar on a snowy night.

Aircraft maintenance

Ensuring the reliability and safety of Intermountain Life Flight’s fleet is a team of skilled technicians and engineers led by DOM Bill Ortega. He and his crew work tirelessly to keep each aircraft in peak condition, conducting routine inspections, repairs, and upgrades to meet the company’s stringent standards.

Ortega is a seasoned aviation maintenance professional who has dedicated 20 years of his career to Intermountain Life Flight, where his expertise and leadership have been instrumental in the company’s success.

His journey into aviation maintenance began in the US Coast Guard, where he received training through a civilian program. “I joined the US Coast Guard right out of high school,” he says. “When I got out, I came home and worked a couple jobs before landing at Intermountain Life Flight as a helicopter mechanic.”

A King Air B200 in the middle of a 200 hour phase inspection.

In his role as DOM, Ortega oversees a team of 22 mechanics responsible for maintaining the company’s diverse fleet. His daily responsibilities include coordinating maintenance activities, ensuring the availability of parts and tools, and scheduling operations efficiently.

The maintenance team boasts a wide range of maintenance capabilities, handling most tasks inhouse, from routine inspections to more complex repairs, with the exception of major engine and gearbox repairs.

For jobs such as these, Ortega works directly with the manufacturers. He clarifies, “We operate all of our aircraft under some kind of maintenance program. For example, we subscribe to Pratt and Whitney’s Eagle Service Plan, Leonardo’s components plan, and Textron’s ProParts.”

Shared vision for the future

The Intermountain Life Flight workforce is characterized by longevity and dedication on the part of personnel who see a promising future for the company in the airborne EMS landscape, with continued growth and integration. Loren Hough adds, “This is my first job in aviation, but I would love to grow here and fly as a PIC soon.”

The company plans to upgrade aircraft in the near future, and the Citation XLS+ seems to be the aircraft of choice to replace the CJ4. “We expect this upgrade to happen in Q1 2025,” says Thompson. And, as technology advances and industry standards evolve, the whole team remains committed to maintaining the highest standards of safety and reliability in aviation maintenance.