Flight Nursing: A Career Path for Adventurous, Compassionate Nurses

In the multifaceted realm of nursing, certain specialties stand out for their adventurous nature. Among these is flight nursing. Flight nurses are experienced registered nurses (RNs) specialized in critical care who are trained to deliver medical treatment to patients via air transport.

Also referred to as helicopter nurses, flight nurses operate with limited backup. With a partner, set protocols, and distant support via radio or phone, they are on the frontline. Therefore, possessing a robust critical care foundation, a myriad of patient experiences, and an agile mindset is imperative. Success hinges on rapid assessments, constant adaptability, proactive care planning, and the ability to think innovatively and persist under pressure.

The Realities of Flight Nursing

There are a host of misconceptions about flight nursing that often cloud the true nature of the profession. One example, flight nurses do not pilot the aircraft. Another common misconception is the pace of the role. 

Decisions must be made methodically and cautiously, yet quickly. The best flight nurses can work rapidly and purposefully without adding unnecessary stress and haste to the situation.

The Right Fit: Personality Traits for Flight Nursing

For new nurses or nursing students contemplating this career path, it’s essential to realize that flight nursing isn’t confined to one niche. Depending on the program, flight nurses might encounter a broad spectrum of patients, from neonates, obstetrical patients, and children to the elderly across various medical situations like trauma, organ transplant, cardiac issues, and more.

Personality Types for Flight Nurses

Nurses who are inherently adventurous and outdoorsy, and thrive in diverse environments, are typically drawn to this specialty area. Flight nurses also tend to be strong communicators, adept at giving and receiving instruction.

A flight nurse’s world is bustling and often unpredictable, communication and collaboration are key. Focus and a heightened sense of situational awareness are imperative as well.

Beyond the mental agility, the role’s physical demands are worth considering. Helicopters cannot always land at the scene of an emergency. Other modes of transport flight nurses may encounter include hiking, horseback riding, snowmobiling, and rowing. Thus, being physically fit is a necessity.

This physical vigor must accompany mental fortitude, enabling critical thinking even under pressure. To add to that, flight nurses need to be adaptable. In the throes of emergencies, adaptability becomes a great asset.

Challenges for Aspiring Flight Nurses

Flight nursing is not for everyone. Those who are germaphobic or squeamish, particularly sensitive to the sight of blood or the pungent odor of critical injuries, will find this path challenging. 

Emergency scenes will also prove daunting to those who are easily overwhelmed or distracted by environmental factors out of their control, such as weather. While the breathtaking views from the aircraft on clear days are an incredible job perk, it’s contrasted by the less-coveted time spent working in the rain, the cold, and darkness.

Rigid thinkers will also face challenges in this profession. Flight nurses need to be communicative and open to ideas from others. For those who thrive in environments that offer consistency and routine, these luxuries are seldom afforded in this field.

Flight Nurse: A Day in the Life

Accident Response

The world of flight nursing often involves venturing into the very heart of a crisis. Every moment is a testament to their skill, dedication, and passion for saving lives. Here is a general overview of what someone can expect if responding to an accident response call.

1. Preparing the Aircraft

Before embarking on any mission, flight nurses prep the aircraft by checking that all medical and communication equipment is on board and functioning correctly. They also review safety procedures with the rest of the crew, especially if there’s a new team member or a change in standard operations.

2. En Route to the Scene

While flying to the accident scene, flight nurses will be briefed by a dispatcher or first responder already on the scene about the nature of the injuries, the number of patients, and any other details available. They then use this information to mentally prepare for all potential scenarios, deciding on possible interventions or treatments based on the briefing.

3. Arriving at the Scene

Once they arrive, flight nurses quickly assess the situation, identify the most critically injured patients, and determine how they should be treated or evacuated. Nurses will provide emergency medical care as needed, including airway management, hemorrhage control, or stabilization procedures. Then, in collaboration with other emergency personnel on the scene, nurses safely extract and transport the patient to the aircraft.

4. En Route to the Medical Facility

Onboard, flight nurses administer continuous medical care to the patient, constantly monitoring vitals, managing pain, administering medications, and any other necessary medical interventions. During the flight, nurses are also responsible for staying in contact with the receiving hospital, updating them on the patient’s status, expected arrival, and any timely information needed upon landing.

5. Preparing the Aircraft for the Next Flight

After transferring the patient, flight nurses debrief with the medical and aviation teams to discuss any unique challenges or observations from the flight. Then, all equipment used during the flight is cleaned, sanitized, and returned to its proper place; consumable items, such as medications or bandages, are restocked.

Interfacility Transfer Protocol

Another common scenario that flight nurses encounter is interfacility transfers, or moving patients between medical establishments via aircraft. This is common at smaller hospitals in rural areas where patients need specialty medical care at a larger city hospital. 

Interfacility transfers follow a similar protocol to accident scene response, but flight nurses have greater access to information about the patient’s condition. During these transfers, there’s also more time to prepare and gather the necessary equipment or medications specifically tailored to the patient’s condition.

At an accident scene, initial care is typically focused on stabilization and life-saving measures, whereas interfacility transfers usually consist of specialized and continuous care, reflecting the patient’s prescribed needs.

Communication is crucial in both scenarios. Flight nurses coordinate more with emergency responders at accident scenes, while interfacility transfers involve in-depth discussions with medical teams from both the sending and receiving hospitals.

In both scenarios, the goal remains the same: ensuring the patient’s safety and providing the highest level of care. The protocols, however, are tailored to each situation’s unique challenges and demands.

How to Become a Flight Nurse

Alison Kesler, a flight nurse from Reno, Nevada, shared her journey to become a flight nurse, which started out with three years of experience as an emergency department nurse. One day, she was asked to receive a patient from the helipad and was entranced with the process and in awe of the flight nurse role. An avid adventurer, Kesler was eager to work outside—a stark contrast from her typical days spent in windowless rooms at the hospital.

To pursue this specialty area, Kesler needed more qualifications, so she started continuing education classes in trauma, obstetrics, and pediatrics. Some were offered by the hospital where she worked, but others she took on her own because she knew they would be important for getting the job. The additional education requirements took her about a year. 

Kesler studied hard for the flight nurse interview. Although she had experience as a critical care nurse and was confident she would have the right answers, she recognized that flight nursing is an entirely different environment. The interview would warrant a much higher caliber of questions.

The motivation to become a flight nurse is rooted in all kinds of personal and professional experiences; however, there are some general guidelines to adhere to in pursuit of this path.

Educational and Experience Requirements for Flight Nurses

Becoming a flight nurse requires a unique combination of education, certification, and experience to ensure optimal patient care during air or ground transport. The prerequisites to enter this field are rigorous. Here’s a comprehensive overview of the general requirements for aspiring flight nurses:

1. Basic Qualifications

  • Licensure: Possession of an active registered nurse (RN) license in the state of intended practice.
  • Clinical experience: Most programs mandate a minimum of three years of critical care or emergency experience. An acute care nursing background may also be relevant.

2. Essential Certifications

  • BCLS: Basic Cardiac Life Support certification ensures nurses are equipped to handle cardiovascular emergencies.
  • ACLS: Advanced Cardiac Life Support Certificate for more complex cardiac situations.
  • PALS: Pediatric Advanced Life Support Certificate, essential for handling pediatric emergencies.
  • NRP: Neonatal Resuscitation Program, specifically for neonatal care.
  • Trauma programs: A recognized trauma certification is crucial. Options include Transport Nurse Advanced Trauma Course (TPATC), Basic Trauma Life Support (BTLS), Prehospital Trauma Life Support (PHTLS), and Trauma Nurse Core Curriculum (TNCC).

3. Advanced Certifications

Within the first six months to a year of employment, nurses might be expected to acquire certifications such as:

  • CFRN: Certified Flight Registered Nurse
  • CCRN: Critical Care Registered Nurse
  • CEN: Certified Emergency Nurse

It’s crucial to understand that requirements can differ based on the specific program or state regulations. For example, certain programs or states may necessitate nurses to have an EMT-B or EMT-P (paramedic) certification. Aspiring flight nurses should consult potential employers or programs to ensure they meet particular prerequisites.

Flight Nurse Salary

Flight nurses earn comfortable wages commiserate with their skills, certifications, and experience. The median flight nurse salary in the United States $93,140 (Salary.com 2023). A tangible example, Kesler reported earning close to $100,000 annually as of 2021 with 16 years of experience. Kesler estimated new flight nurse salaries to start around $60,000 per year.

These figures, which can vary based on geography, skills, experience, and certifications, are estimates for full-time employees. One full-time schedule possibility is ten 24-hour shifts over four weeks.

Professional Associations for Flight Nurses: Charting the Path to Excellence

Flight nurses who want to advance in this career must stay at the forefront of industry developments, best practices, and networking. One way to do so is to get involved with professional associations focused on addressing the specific challenges and demands of flight nurses. Here are some resources to get started:

Air and Surface Transport Nurses Association (ASTNA)

With its 2,500 members, ASTNA is a nonprofit organization dedicated to elevating the standards of transport nursing. Focused on safety, education, and communication, ASTNA represents the specialty in relevant forums, promotes field-specific research, and serves as a key resource on air medical care delivery.

Association of Air Medical Services (AAMS)

Headquartered in Washington, DC, AMS is a global nonprofit that champions high-quality medical care and transport. AAMS offers professional development, empowering members to serve communities worldwide.

Emergency Nurses Association (ENA) 

ENA dedicates itself to propelling the standard of emergency nursing forward globally. It strives to be the leading organization for the emergency nursing community and adapt to the ever-evolving challenges of emergency care.

American Association of Critical Care Nurses (AACN) 

AACN centers around nurses’ vital role during patients’ most vulnerable moments. AACN advocates for a healthcare system prioritized around patients and their families.

All these associations represent the foundational aspects of being a flight nurse, providing the tools and resources needed to excel in this challenging yet rewarding profession.

Flight Nurses’ Role in the Healthcare System

Flight nurses are more than just caregivers in the sky. They enhance the medical profession’s capacity to offer timely, specialized, and advanced patient care, regardless of location or circumstance. Those who possess the right blend of adventure, compassion, focus, and skill, embracing this role could make impactful differences in countless lives, bridging distances and delivering care where it’s most urgently needed.

Sharlys Leszczuk

Sharlys Leszczuk

Guest Contributor

Sharlys Leszczuk is the founder and owner of Shar-Liss, a creative, deep-thinking, insights-driven communications consultancy. She built her career counseling high-technology companies of all sizes – from not-for-profits and pre-seed startups to Fortune 100s – on messaging, communications, and go-to-market strategies. Her specialties include ghostwriting, content development, corporate communications, creative strategy, events, and social media, with a focus on project management, operations, and executive relations.

Born and raised in North Jersey, Sharlys received bachelor’s degrees in public relations and global studies from Hofstra University on Long Island. After graduating, she spent nearly a decade working for New York City PR agencies. Then, with the remote work flexibility afforded by the pandemic, she took an interest in roadtripping, which ultimately led her to relocate to Oregon. She is an active member of her small coastal community, Pacific City, where she spends her free time exploring the outdoors and activities such as hiking, biking, paddleboarding, and kayaking.