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Phoenix Heli-Flight

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The definition of a hero is a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements or noble qualities. Fort McMurray has it’s own heroes, and Paul Spring of Phoenix Heli, is one of the great unsung heroes in the region.

Phoenix Heli got it’s start with just one helicopter, and grew to include 10 machines with 30 staff over the last 20 years, one of the most modern fleets in all of Canada. The helicopters are used for such diverse things as aerial construction, where they move large pieces of equipment to site or help maneuver pieces into place on higher structures. They take environmentalists out into the field for water tests, bird and animal counts and putting monitoring equipment into place. Photography, passenger transport, and wildfire suppression are all services that the crews at Phoenix Heli carry out on any given day.

If you find yourself in medical distress within a 400 kilometer radius of Fort McMurray, you will be hoping that Paul is sent out to rescue you. Imagine having your spouse or child, any loved one, being in an accident on Highway 63 in the winter. Would you be comfortable with them having to wait for over an hour to be put in an ambulance? Or would you want Paul flying them to quicker medical attention?

Until last year, through Paul’s initiative, a new helicopter was purchased so that night flights could finally be taken in our region. When asked what motivated him to make the decision to take on the cost of a 6.5 million-dollar machine, Paul’s response, like the man, is modest.

“Being in the trenches, so to speak, we have always known the need because we are either meeting the need or turning down requests based on availability of aircraft during the day, or because we were not able to fly legally at night,” explains Paul. “So knowing what we were not doing, and having the oil companies constantly saying ‘We have a drill program up at a certain spot that is winter road access only, we want to list you as our medivac service, you do nights right?’ And we were having to say, “No, we don’t.’”

So seeing the need for the service, Paul hosted a meeting last January which included 27 representatives from the oil industry companies, the provincial government, the Oilsands Secretariat, and the Fort McMurray Fire Department. At the meeting in Calgary, the representatives were asked directly if they wanted Paul to go ahead with the purchase of the new aircraft, and hire new pilots and train them all for night flights. Paul needed to know if they were going to support him in this huge endeavor, and by a show of hands, it was agreed that if he bought the new helicopter, industry and government would be forthcoming with their support. But the reality of the situation is that the support has not been as forthcoming as Paul had hoped, and the financial burden is heavy for Phoenix Heli.

The $6.5-million helicopter is an EC135. It has controls for two pilots, can land on wet spongy muskeg, and Spring says it can do almost everything by itself except hover, like climb and descend, turn left and right, and is equipped with night vision goggles and all the filters needed for those night trips.

This helicopter is separate from the others in Spring’s fleet, under a program called the HERO program, which stands for Helicopter Emergency Response Organization, and it is designated solely for medical calls right now. In any given week, Phoenix Heli does up to six or more medical calls. They transport people from remote camps, and work sites, but also Highway 63 and more remote communities. Some trips that might take hours by ambulance are cut down to a fraction of that time, time that Spring says makes a huge difference in the outcome for the patient.

Even the cost of training, retraining and hiring pilots to staff the helicopter so that it can take off 24 hours a day, seven days a week is an enormous cost, with Spring saying that 2/3 of the operating costs of the aircraft actually goes to the cost of the crew. The pilots had to go to Louisiana for a two-week training course in order to be able to do the much-needed night flights.

One myth that seems to permeate the city of Fort McMurray is that we are serviced by STARS...a fact that is completely untrue. STARs only serves as far north as Wandering River. Many think that when they buy the calendars in the local stores the funds go to service our area. But all of that money goes to the people who live farther south. Not Fort McMurray at all. It is Paul Spring, and Phoenix Heli-Flight that service the city and the outlying areas of the region.

“I want the community to feel that this helicopter is theirs. I want them to understand that we’re looking after them when they crash their quad or when they get hurt in a remote setting or when we can make better times to the hospital. It’s all about really getting the understanding of how exposed some people are in this region when you are working or playing in remote areas. This helicopter will be the only lifeline for people to the Fort McMurray hospital,” says Spring about the important aspect of residents realizing that this service is very desperately needed in the region. Spring has even talked to people who go to Six Lakes to quad and camp for the weekends, and they don’t realize that they are very vulnerable in that situation, especially if this service is lost due to lack of funding.

Spring said in the last few weeks, some community groups, like the Tar Sands Lions Club and Target Logistics are stepping forward to help financially, and he hopes that once more people start hearing about all that they do every day, others will commit to the project as well.

If you go to their website, you can click on the Hero Program link to make your own donation to this needed service, and you can also find out more about all the services that Spring and his crew do in and around Fort McMurray.

According to Spring, our MLAs, Don Scott and Mike Allen, have been helping to get the word out about this service, and it is hoped that in future meetings Alberta Health Services will be able to help with the cost of the Hero Program.

Once the information is out to the residents of Fort McMurray, Spring feels confident that they will support the program because over and over again he has seen the generosity of the residents helping others.

“It’s not even about saving a life all the time,” adds Spring. “It’s about their quality of life after the event, and that often depends on how quickly they receive medical attention. And while the cost of the program may look like a lot, if the person does not receive fast attention, they may have a longer time in the hospital afterwards for rehabilitation and recovery, and in the end costing taxpayers more than the cost of the helicopter program.

“We may cost $10,000 for the trip to medical care, but it may save $100,000 to the taxpayer if that person has a quicker recovery,” said Spring, who thinks it is money well spent.

The other hurdle is that until people are in the situation where they need the lifeline to the hospital, many may not even realize the situation here in the region. But who wants to wait for the unimaginable to happen to realize that you could have made a difference by supporting this program?

“Phoenix Heli will continue doing what we are doing, for as long as we can financially survive, because this is something that is needed here in Fort McMurray, and I can’t imagine what it would mean to not have this service to offer to those who need it,” says Spring when asked what would happen if no funding if forth coming.

The Hero Program is aptly named, for Spring and his crew are the ones who will be there in your greatest time of need, and they do it because they are heroes. People who do outstanding achievements every single day in Fort McMurray, that is Phoenix Heli, that is Paul Spring.


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