To Protect and Serve ~ The Story of an AeroMed Pilot
You never know what path your life will take. Sometimes the path towards what you think you want ends up being a detour to something you were meant to do. Kevin Spaulding found his path to protect and serve, but it wasn’t by becoming the police officer he had imagined.
I had first heard the name Kevin Spaulding while preparing for the private pilot check ride. I was told that the examiner I would likely schedule my test with had years of experience flying for a commercial airliner, and presently occupied his time as a pilot instructor, FAA examiner, and EMS pilot.
It was August 2018 when I flew to Wexford County Airport for the PPL knowledge test and check ride. Nervously walking into the terminal building at CAD, I scanned the lobby for the man who had carved out half a day’s time from his busy schedule, and worried how I would stack up to his expectations of a “good” pilot.
At first meeting Kevin Spaulding, I thought, “This guy looks like a cop!” I had no idea that once upon a time, he wanted to be a police officer.
It was the way he carried himself that struck me. His posture impeccable, and a no-nonsense attitude for dealing with the matter at hand… It was as if he were wearing a crisply pressed uniform with a shiny badge on his chest even though he was dressed, business casual.
I must have had that ‘deer in the headlights’ look when Kevin introduced himself because it seemed he said everything he could to ease my anxiety. Knowing there were over 760 questions that he could choose to discuss – in detail – was mind numbing.
“What would this test involve?” I fretted. Letting my guard down seemed impossible, at first, but as our conversation progressed through the oral portion of the exam, I finally began to settle into the discussion.
The oral portion of the PPL exam took several hours of questioning about rules, regulations, flight calculations, and safety measures every pilot must know. When the conversation turned to Go, No-Go decisions that every pilot faced, he offered an example from his own perspective that intrigued me to no end.
It was after that conversation that I felt a connection to Kevin Spaulding, and respect for the job he does as an AeroMed pilot… a job I could never do… And I wondered how he got to where he is today.
Oscar Wilde said, “Experience is one thing you can’t get for nothing.”
For Kevin Spaulding, his experiences flying began when he was very young. Kevin said, “I began to pursue my passion and career choice of flying at age 14 in a Luscombe at Barstow Airport located in Midland, Michigan.”
It seemed odd that my first impression of him rang true when he added, “My first career choice was to be a Trooper for the Michigan State Police, but by the time I was old enough to apply they weren’t hiring.”
Instead of a police uniform, Kevin donned another officer’s attire, employed as a professional pilot over the next 37-years of his life. Starting out as a commercial airline pilot, he has since become a certificated flight instructor, and FAA pilot examiner.
Learning that the FAA requires 1500 hours of flight time to become an airline pilot, it is of no surprise Kevin Spaulding has a LOT of hours in the seat. Currently flying 550-600 hours per year, he has logged 27,251 hours of flight time, which includes 4,200 hours of instruction given.
Kevin said, “During my 26-years as a pilot examiner, I have administered over 5,000 FAA practical tests, [and] trained over 200 pilots for various certificates and ratings.”
Knowing he would have to have various ratings and certificates, himself, in order to train and test pilots, when asked what licenses and endorsements he has acquired, Spaulding replied, “I currently hold airline transport pilot certificates for airplane single and multiengine land, commercial pilot, seaplane and glider, [and] am certificated to teach in single and multi-engine aircraft for both land and sea, as well as instrument airplane.”
With type ratings in the DC-9/MD-88, Swearingen Metroliner, Falcon 10, and the Beechcraft King Air 300/350, it is apparent that Kevin Spaulding has flown a lot of airplanes! Even though he couldn’t name them all, he stated, “I can honestly say that I cannot think of any single engine or light, twin engine aircraft that I have not flown, or instructed in.”
I couldn’t fathom the amount of time involved in becoming certificated, rated, or endorsed for all of the specific aircraft Kevin has flown, but figured he must have a favorite.
Kevin shared, “My favorite airplane is a Piper J-3 on straight floats.”
Built between 1937-1947, the Piper J-3 Cub was the most produced aircraft in its time, and as the Smithsonian National Air & Flight Museum stated, “Its success made the name ‘Cub’ a generic term for light airplanes [and] remains one of the most recognized designs in aviation.”
Approximately 75% of Americans trained in the Civilian Pilot Training Program of WWII learned in the Piper Cub. The tandem tail-dragger originally came equipped with a 40hp Continental, Lycoming, or Franklin engine, then later, a 65hp engine. But most impressive is the Cub’s ability to lift off at a mere 35 kts, and land within 200-feet.
Kevin explained, “I obtained my seaplane rating in a J-3, and enjoy the simplicity as well as the legacy of this great airplane. It’s just cool to have many hours of J-3 Cub time in my logbook.”
Having a puny, 65hp engine in a floatplane seemed a bit underpowered to me, but Kevin explained, “most J-3 Cubs are retrofitted with an 85-or-90hp engine and a metal prop,” adding, “Cubs make great floatplanes.”
It seems fitting the Piper J-3 Cub is Kevin’s favorite airplane because not only did they both start out slow-and-steady, each of them have carried-on through years of interesting experiences, being retrofitted for new and exciting jobs throughout their lives.
It was in 2014 that Kevin Spaulding’s piloting career transformed once again, adding more experiences to his ever-expanding list of retrofitted capabilities. Accepting a position with Spectrum Health Hospitals, Kevin began flying a Beechcraft King Air B200 for Northflight AeroMed as an EMS pilot.
The Beechcraft B200 sports twin, Pratt and Whitney turbos each rated at 850 shp. With a maximum useful load of 4,962 pounds, the King Air makes an makes an excellent choice for EMS flight.
I don’t know if you have ever heard of someone being ‘air lifted’ before, but when “NorthFlight” is mentioned in northern Michigan, it is usually with a huge amount of respect for those pilots.
With bases in both Traverse City and Grand Rapids Michigan, three, 12-hour shifts per week starting at 6am and 6pm, consecutively, are rotated between 6 King Air pilots, 10 helicopter pilots, 24 nurses, and 6 doctors.
Kevin explained, “Flights are dispatched from the company dispatch center in Grand Rapids, [with] one helicopter pilot and one fixed wing pilot on site, ready to launch within 20 minutes of a call.”
“Our patients are very sick people, and usually unconscious,” Kevin said. As for the crew, Kevin imparted, “both [aircraft] consist of a pilot and two registered nurses, or occasionally a doctor and a nurse.”
Transport flights to larger facilities like U of M Hospital or Mayo Clinic are normally within 500 miles of Traverse City. Kevin added, “The helicopter crews normally handle ‘scene calls,’ [and the] fixed-wing transports are almost exclusively hospital-to-hospital… patients [that] have been to an E.R. and are stable.”
Besides flights involving patients onboard, Kevin shared, “I also do organ harvest flights, which involve taking a surgeon and their team to harvest an organ to be transplanted at another location.”
“Time is of the essence for organ harvest flights,” Kevin stated. “Most organ flights are for our company, Spectrum Health, and the organs are normally transplanted at Butterworth hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan.”
Special training for an AeroMed Pilot includes, “simulator training every six months at Flight Safety International located in Atlanta, Georgia or Witchita, Kansas [for] a 3-day-course which involves about 10-hours of aircraft systems review, 6-hours of simulator training, emergency procedures, etc.”
Kevin added, “I am very fortunate to have had very few emergencies or malfunctions during my career.”
On an interesting side-note, Kevin shared, “The most challenging emergency was an engine failure during a seaplane check-ride, but we were over a lake and landed in the water on floats. It was later determined that the crankshaft snapped due to metal fatigue.”
I couldn’t imagine having an emergency, let alone during an EMS flight. With every flight considered urgent, I wondered how Kevin went about determining whether the aircraft leaves the ground.
Spaulding explained that upon immediate arrival for his shift, he pre-flights the aircraft and checks the weather at all normal pick up and drop-off points. After reviewing the “big picture analysis of current and forecast conditions within 500 miles of Michigan,” he discusses any weather concerns with the medical crew.
“For example,” he said, “if moderate turbulence is forecast in the area, we might not want to transport a patient with a back or neck injury; or perhaps there is freezing rain or poor runway conditions at a certain airport that would require a closer look before accepting a flight.”
While Kevin pre-flights the plane, the medical crew is responsible for making sure the aircraft is supplied with everything needed for a flight. After everyone is done with their preliminary work, they can all do whatever they want (study, play cards, watch television) until a call is received.
Like all pilots who fly frequently, it seems Kevin Spaulding has become a bit of a weather guru throughout his life experiences. Weather is unpredictable, but knowing how to judge a dangerous situation when taking to the skies is an important ability for all pilots to possess.
Can you imagine adding IFR conditions to your night flight? Or how about a little ice on the wings?
Kevin shared, “We can fly in very low IFR weather and in icing conditions. If the weather conditions are very low IFR, and the conditions are forecast to go below IFR approach minimums or would create a significant delay, we will decline the flight.”
“This does not happen very often,” he adds, “but we need to be careful since diverting to another airport is not practical when transporting a sick patient to a particular hospital. We are quite conservative when it comes to weather.”
Ultimately, it is the pilot's decision whether or not to fly. Kevin explained, “the pilot determines if the flight can be safely operated. If so, the flight is accepted, the medical crew is notified, and we are airborne within 15-minutes.”
Keeping your head in the game when flying is imperative for any pilot.
Furthermore, the “I’m Safe Checklist” helps pilots evaluate their personal risk level when deciding to fly. Assessing oneself concerning illness, medications, stress, alcohol, fatigue, and emotions are important in determining readiness in the pilot’s seat.
For the pilots of Northflight, Kevin said, “When dispatch calls the pilot for a flight, they do not tell the pilot anything about the patient, as they don’t want that to sway our decision whether or not to fly. If the pilot accepts the flight they will give patient information to the medical crew and they will then inform me of the situation.”
I asked, “A successful flight must make the whole crew feel on top of the world. Do you ever know what happens after you deliver a patient to a hospital?”
Kevin said, “After a patient is delivered to their destination hospital, we normally check on the patient to see how they are doing and often send them a get well soon card. However, sometimes it is not good news. In that case we send a sympathy card to the family. It is a great feeling when we get good news that a life was saved.”
There are a lot of different reasons why people choose the unique path of becoming a pilot, but as Cleverism contributor, Anastasia Belyh points out, “Being a pilot is a rigorous job that requires determination and focus in order to achieve success. Flying a plane is a lot of work both in training and in practice.”
With the endless list of demands required in Spaulding’s work, I wondered exactly what his idea of a “FUN” flight entailed.
Kevin shared, “Some of the most enjoyable flying was in my own Cessna 140, which I kept at my home and operated it from the hay field in the back yard. I would often fly my kids to Moorestown for an ice cream cone on a nice summer evening. However, after my kids became adults I sold my airplane, and now I am a member in a local flying club. My wife and I fly off to different places to hike and bike.”
Coming full circle, it seems Kevin Spaulding was destined for the high pressure demands in his jobs, stating, “The most gratifying flying that I am blessed to do is administering FAA practical tests. There is nothing more enjoyable than handing a new certificate to a pilot that has worked very hard to obtain new privileges. It is wonderful.”
When asked if there was anything he hasn’t flown that he would like to, Kevin admitted, “My “bucket-list” aircraft to fly is a DC-3 and a Ford Tri-Motor. I want to fly these airplanes because of the history behind these two great aircraft.”
In closing, Kevin said, “The best advice that I can offer [a pilot] is to stay current and proficient. Always stay in the books and know your emergency procedures. You never know when an emergency will occur, and far too many pilots are not proficient with emergency procedures."
For students pilot, he recommended, "When seeking instruction don’t look for the easiest and cheapest instructor. Practice those stalls and crosswind landings.”
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “Our chief want is someone who will inspire us to be what we know we could be.”
Likewise, Kevin Spaulding petitions all pilots, “Please introduce someone to aviation and help them get started. Most of us had a mentor, so please take time to be that mentor for someone else."
Won't you pass it on?
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Notes and References:
North Flight Aero Med, operated by Spectrum Health Hospitals, can be activated by any medical authority, including 911 dispatch centers, hospitals, physicians, nurses, police or fire departments, EMS providers, marine safety officers, and park service personnel.
Use air transport if your patient meets one or more of the following:
Meets ACEP/NAEMSP criteria
Requires air or critical care (physician discretion)
Requires an RN during transport
Requires two skilled care providers
Would benefit from decreased out-of-hospital time
Ground transport time is more than 30 to 60 minutes (per Medicare)
Needs time urgent interventions
Aerofiles, “The Forever Club, http://www.aerofiles.com/cubstory.html
Belyh, Anastasia, August 25, 2019, “7 Wrong Reasons for Wanting to Become a Pilot,” https://www.cleverism.com/7-wrong-reasons-for-wanting-to-become-a-pilot/
Brainy Quote, Ralph Waldo Emerson, https://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/ralph_waldo_emerson_130588
Cox, Bill, “Piper’s Iconic J-3 Cub, https://piperowner.org/j3-cub/
Federal Aviation Administration, 2016, “Fact Sheet – Pilot Mental Fitness,” https://www.faa.gov/news/fact_sheets/news_story.cfm?newsId=20455
Federal Aviation Administration, 2013, “Press Release – FAA Boosts Aviation Safety with New Pilot Qualification Standards,” https://www.faa.gov/news/press_releases/news_story.cfm?newsId=14838
Federal Aviation Administration, 2015, “Recreational Pilot and Private Pilot Knowledge Tests," https://www.faa.gov/pilots/become/knowledge/
Houston, Sabrina, November 20, 2019, “The I’m Safe Checklist,” https://www.thebalancecareers.com/the-i-m-safe-checklist-282948
Smithsonian National Air & Space Museum, “Piper J-3 Cub,” https://airandspace.si.edu/collection-objects/piper-j-3-cub/nasm_A19771128000