Behind the Scenes: Kim Welliver, Pegasus Medical Transport Pilot

August 25, 2008

At an institution as large as U.Va., it’s easy to forget that it consists of many individually moving parts. We may take for granted the roughly 13,500 employees who keep the whole operation humming every day. Who, for instance, keeps all the UTS buses on the road? Who watches what students eat? Who flies critically injured patients to the hospital? The fall issue of U.Va. Magazine highlights nine such employees -- a few of the small pictures that make up U.Va.’s big picture.

In anticipation of the new academic year, UVA Today will in the coming days publish excerpts of the profiles, which were written by Sierra Bellows, Michelle Cuevas and Paul Evans.

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During his 12-hour shifts with U.Va.’s Pegasus medical transport, Kim Welliver wears a flight suit, keeps his helmet within reach and watches the sky. As pilot of the Pegasus helicopter, he must be prepared to fly a mission at a moment’s notice, whether there is a traffic accident in West Virginia, a tractor rollover in North Carolina, or a stroke in Washington, D.C. "We are an ambulance in the sky rather than on wheels," explains Welliver. "We can land in a field or on a road, and we can travel in a straight line, as the crow flies, anywhere we go."

The Pegasus helicopter, an Agusta 109E, is painted blue and orange and carries the image of the mythological winged horse on its side. In the rear, a small compartment is crowded with seats for the two-person medical crew and a litter for the patient, as well as an impressive array of medical equipment, including a defibrillator and an EKG machine.

In the cockpit, the seats face a panel of glowing instruments that allow the pilots to orient themselves and keep an eye on the weather. Using instruments alone, they can fly blind through dense cloud cover. The helicopter is equipped with night vision goggles, but there are weather conditions that make flight impossible, such as electrical storms. For that reason, while he is waiting to be called on a mission, Welliver constantly monitors satellite images of weather systems in the eastern U.S. "We check and double check because once we are in the air, we can’t just pull over," he says. With its powerful twin engines, Pegasus cruises at 175 miles an hour—fast even for a helicopter.

Pegasus has been transporting patients to U.Va. Hospital since 1984, but Welliver has been flying Pegasus only since 2004. He first spent 25 years as a helicopter pilot in the U.S. Army, and the skills that made him a good soldier have translated to his work in emergency medical services. "It’s important to be cool under pressure, fulfill the purpose of the mission and not be distracted from it," he says. "My job is to fly safely and if I get caught up in the human drama, I won’t perform as well."

Welliver loves to fly, and his favorite part of the job is sharing that passion with others. "The patients I remember best are the people for whom the ride in the helicopter is the first time they’ve flown," he says. "The wonder of it elevates their mind from their personal situation. They are sick or injured, in a bad spot, but for a moment they can forget it and just feel awestruck."

In some interpretations of Greek mythology, Pegasus carried Perseus to save Andromeda from being devoured by a dragon. During a typical shift, the Pegasus helicopter will carry Welliver and the medical crew on two to three life-saving missions. If there are similarities that could be drawn between ancient and modern-day heroes, Welliver isn’t one to notice. "Every kid wants to be able to fly. I’m just lucky that I get to," he says.

Photo by Jack Looney