Lt. Jay Cullen, Aviation Unit Commander, at the controls. All the helicopters are IFR-equipped and all the pilots IFR-qualified.
Just inside a hangar at Richmond Executive Airport, a gleaming blue and gray medevac helicopter stands ready. Preflight complete, medical equipment stocked and checked, tug attached. The pilot, flight nurse and medic are in the ready room, only steps away.
When the call comes at any time of day or night, the crew and machine are ready to go.
In Richmond, this is a job for the state police, explains Lt. Jay Cullen, Aviation Unit Commander. Last year, he said, the unit flew 878 patients on medflight missions.
Cullen, a tall and lean 48-year-old, clad in a navy-blue jump suit, shows the gear that makes the helicopters so capable. Crews can reach first responders or trauma centers on any frequency. With spotlights, infrared imagers and night vision goggles, they’re ready to land wherever there’s a clear spot. Weather, traffic and terrain monitors alert pilots to hazards. A hoist is ready if needed. Above and below the cockpit are wire cutters, “which we’ve never had to try.”
Inside the cabin, “We have everything that an ambulance does,” explained Cullen, “except it’s smaller.” And of course it’s much, much faster.
Only Virginia’s and Maryland’s state police are in the medevac helicopter business, Cullen continued. In most places, it’s a private business, as it is in Roanoke, Charlottesville and Norfolk. In the early 1980’s the state found large gaps in service and asked the state police to gear up in Richmond. Another base now operates in Abingdon.
Medical transportation accounts for the largest share of the unit’s flight hours, 950 last year. Another 650 were devoted to searches and surveillance, often in support of other law-enforcement agencies. Transportation, largely for the governor’s office, accounted for 750 hours and 350 were devoted to training. Another 160 hours went to maintenance and photo flights.
The fixed-wing fleet, based in Abingdon, Lynchburg and here, supports law enforcement. The 206 is air conditioned and carries a FLIR 380-HDc imaging system. All 17 of the unit’s pilots are cross-trained to fly both rotary and fixed wing.
Commercial medevac services have been criticized for safety and for cost, and Cullen believes he has an advantage on both points.
“A lot of accidents are weather-related or come from pressure on the pilot to fly more missions,” Cullen explained. The state doesn’t charge for its medevac flights, so there’s no financial incentive to fly when we shouldn’t.
That also means accident victims aren’t hit with a bill that can exceed $50,000 if their insurance doesn’t cover a for-profit medevac flight.
Also for safety, Cullen continued, “we were ahead of the curve in IFR helicopters. That will save you many times at night and in marginal weather.” All the pilots stay IFR current and all the helicopters are IFR equipped, though only the twin-engine models are eligible for IFR certification.
In addition to the 17 pilots, including Cullen, the unit employs three full-time and one part-time mechanic and two support staff.
On a medevac flight from FCI, state police provide the pilot and helicopter, VCU Health provides the flight nurse and Chesterfield County Fire and EMS provides a medic.
All the pilots are state troopers, though they’re assigned full-time to aviation. Some were military pilots who joined the unit after trooper training, while a growing number are troopers who became interested in aviation and trained on the job. Now that the military is trying to keep its pilots, Cullen said, this has become the major route.
It takes a while, though. If a trooper already has a private pilot certificate, “it takes a year to become a police pilot,” flying fixed-wing, “then two years to reach 500 helicopter hours. That’s when we start considering them for medevac duty. That’s the most high-risk flying that we do because it involves night operations and landings in the field.”
Cullen himself started as an aspiring pilot and went through Embry Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida. “When I got out, the aviation industry was not doing well,” he recalled, “so I went to work as a flight instructor in Front Royal.
“One day I met a state pilot there. He said all we have is low-time pilots and the state sends them off to school. He encouraged me to apply.
“So I got hired as a trooper, taking it on faith that I’d eventually be able to fly. After six years as a trooper in Northern Virginia, in 1999, I applied for a position in the [aviation] unit and they sent me to helicopter school in Manassas. At that time I had 1,200 to 1,500 hours flying fixed wing and it was my first time flying rotary.”
It was a challenge, Cullen recalled, but “once you learn how to hold it in one place, the rest came easy.”
In 2005 he moved to Chesterfield County as sergeant in charge of the base and in 2012 he became unit commander.
What about the “bear in the air” speed checks that most people associate with state police aviation? “The speed enforcement mission is still on the books,” Cullen replied, but those operations are costly and staff-intensive and the unit is shorthanded – so “we have not conducted a [speed check] mission in some time.”
To learn more about the State Police Aviation Unit, click Unit History.bullets.