Air Ambulance Pilot “On Call”

Nearly all my flying over the last week was for the Flying Mission Services air ambulance mission. FMS has a contract with the Botswana Ministry of Health to provide 24-7-365 air ambulance service to the people of Botswana. Anytime, day or night, FMS has at least one aircraft and one crew (two pilots, a fully qualified medical doctor, and a fully certified paramedic) on call to be airborne in less than an hour. Our mission is to respond anywhere in the country to transport critical patients from remote areas to fully staffed and equipped hospitals. It sounds important, but it’s actually much more.

Early Sun morning at 0100 my phone started to buzz. It took me a few seconds to realize it was also ringing. I glanced at the number…it was the flight coordinator. “Wow,” I thought, “really, one AM?” Sure enough, it was a call for a medical flight. We were tasked to pick up a burn patient in Maun and fly him to Gaborone. I grabbed my bags and dashed into the cold night. I met Jeff (the other pilot who has tremendous flying experience in Botswana and superb flying skills), the doctor, and the paramedic at the aircraft. We quickly loaded, and within minutes we were level at 28,000 feet flying as fast as possible to Maun. On the ramp in Maun, Jeff and I helped the medics carry the stretcher from the ambulance and onto the aircraft. The patient was burned over 70% of his body…that’s something I found to be quite tough to witness. The doctors were efficient, skilled, and extremely professional. I knew that I, too, had my professional job to do, and so I got right to it.

Jeff and I had the aircraft airborne in minutes and set best forward speed to hurry back to Gaborone where an ambulance was waiting. We helped offload the patient, and the ambulance zipped off with lights flashing. The medics said the patient had “low odds” of making it. But at least we got him to the best care possible and gave him a chance!

We refueled the aircraft and had it ready and waiting for the next emergency call. I pulled my bags from the airplane and watched the eastern sky lighten as the rising sun approached the horizon from below. It was Sunday morning. I drove straight to Mass from the airport. 

Eight short hours later, Jeff and I answered the next call … fly to Tsabong (a small village, with a small gravel runway, in the Kalahari Desert) to pick up a premature baby and the mother. The calm, still air and warm, comfortable sunshine contrasted the sure worry and pain of the mother and her family who were watching and encouraging her as she boarded the plane and the small baby struggled. The sight of an airplane, ready to go, must surely offer hope and encouragement as well.

During the flight back to Gaborone, I could hear the small cries of the baby and the rhythmic beeps of the medical monitors while the doctor maintained attentive surveillance over the mother and child.  It seemed all was good when we landed and loaded mom and the baby into the ambulance … monitors still beeping. However, just over an hour later, as we received yet another call to fly, we heard that the baby from Tsabong had died at the hospital.  On multiple levels, this is not easy work. But again, we did our best, provided the best available care and opportunity, offered hope, and answered the call.

After five days of being “on-call,” I gained a tremendous appreciation for all the great work from everyone here and all those supporting Flying Mission Services. From the mechanics, the supply/logistics folks, the accountants, the scheduling/invoicing staff, and the pilots. From everyone who ensures and enables FMS as a safe, clean, and functioning organization. From every financial and prayer supporter. Know that you all contribute to the awesome mission of compassion and hope…in the name of our Lord.

I’m humbled to be a small part of it. Thank you! And Laus Deo!

Submitted by Charles Greenwald.