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Medical pilots missing flight path landmarks

One of the lasting images of the May 22 tornado that struck Joplin, Missouri is St. John’s Regional Medical Center and the mangled MedFlight helicopter lying on its side out of commission.

Pace says their base in Nevada helped out a lot, flying patients to area hospitals until St. John’s was able to get their other new helicopter. He says making sure they have this service back up is just another sign of rebuilding better than before.

In the days the followed the Joplin crew acquired another chopper, giving them some sort of normalcy, but with major landmarks gone responding to medical emergencies has become more challenging for MedFlight pilots.

The old landmarks, including St. John’s Regional Medical Center itself, helped give pilots a reference to where they were within the region.

With lights out on the south side of the hospital, it is just one more guide gone from a pilot’s tool chest.

“The hardest thing, I think, for everybody was to have to sit idly by so-to-speak or at least not be able to do what our primary purpose and function was for the first 24 hours or so, and that is to be flying and helping other people,” says Rod Pace, the St. John’s MedFlight manager. “We’re still in a little adjustment mode and we look for other fixed objects to declare as landmarks or new landmarks, especially when you’re flying at night.”

Bob Dutton is a pilot with St. John’s MedFlight and he says now it is like there is a big hole in the south side of Joplin. When in the air, they reference the damaged areas as blue or brown, due to the amount of tarps and dirt as far as the eye can see.

“Visually, you don’t have the light reference so areas like where Walmart and Home Depot at the 20th and Range Line intersection, usually a lot of traffic almost anytime of the day or night,” says Dutton. “It’s difficult, to be honest with you, daily to come here and see this every single day that you come to work. It’s just – it can be a little overwhelming first thing in the morning to come here and see this.”

With all the destruction and clean-up efforts continuing, the landscape continues to change.

One new landmark for pilots – emptiness in the south side of town.


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