Michigan Medicine’s new Survival Flight jet has only been in service since June 1, but it’s already making missions faster and safer for the hospital’s most severely ill and injured patients.

Michigan Medicine launched the Survival Flight program 35 years ago to rapidly and safely transport patients to hospitals. Since then, the program has grown into a booming operation with 24 flight nurses, 10 communication specialists, 10 helicopter pilots, eight fixed-wing pilots and seven mechanics. 

The new $10 million converted Learjet 75 replaced the plane the program had used for the last 17 years. Like most medical planes, the previous aircraft, a Cessna Citation Encore, was a typical commercial jet fitted with medical equipment. Denise Landis, Survival Flight clinical director, explained though the previous plane served its purpose, its original commercial function added certain difficulties to the job. For example, its door frame was only 19 inches wide.  

“It was very hard to get patients in and out of the door safely without injuring the patient, without injuring the crew and without damaging the aircraft,” Landis said.  

Though Landis said no patients have been harmed on their way into or out of a Survival Flight plane, the new jet makes that fear a non-issue. Specifically converted by aircraft refurbishment firm Hillaero, the new plane also began its life as a corporate jet; however, after input from Survival Flight stakeholders from all over the University Hospital, it began to transform into an aircraft that could fit all of Survival Flight’s medical needs, including wider doors.

Elaine Philipson is one three Survival Flight nurses who worked all year with Nebraska-based Hillaero to turn the plans for a new plane into a reality. She went to Nebraska nearly every two weeks to speak with the design team. Philipson was thrilled with the way they helped turn the team’s vision into a reality.

“We designed the interior to be able to fit all of those worst-case scenarios … whatever problem we had, their solution far exceeded what we could imagine,” Philipson said.

Her favorite new design features are the equipment mounts that allow flight nurses to keep the patient monitors and other tools accessible. With everything easily available and within sight, Philipson said nurses and doctors can deliver care to patients without having to leave their seats.

The plane is also used by the hospital’s organ procurement team, which transports organs from all over the country back to Michigan Medicine for transplant. Landis said additional seating in the new jet allows two organ procurement teams to go out at the same time, increasing the speed at which organs can be brought back to patients.

The additional space the new jet provides is crucial for the flight team, too. Previously, the jet could take at most four passengers. If a flight required multiple doctors and extra crew members, the team would have to lease an additional commercial plane for a flight, which can be expensive and often takes time the Survival Flight team can’t afford to waste.

Even Nursing senior Elise Eginton, who visited the Survival Flight team as part of a class last year and is now considering becoming a flight nurse herself, noticed the need for more space in the team’s aircrafts.

“I know that they did say that space was definitely an issue,” Eginton said. “I think they felt pretty cramped in the (plane) they had before.”

But the new jet is already helping to solve this problem. Landis said a flight to Colorado last week to fly home a baby who had surgery was able to accommodate more passengers than the old jet could have — including the baby’s mother, who otherwise would have had to arrange her own commercial flight.

“We are just very fortunate that the health system recognizes safety and the ability to care for the complex patients that are brought here and they give us the tools to do the job that we need to do,” Landis said. “(The new jet) is wonderful!” 

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