Howard Ragsdale, senior vice president of business development for Denver-based Air Methods and this year’s winner of the Airbus Helicopters Golden Hour Award, has spent most of his aviation career in air medical operations. Along with Archie Gray, senior vice president of aviation services, he is one of two long-time employees of Air Methods to receive an HAI Salute to Excellence Award this year. The “Golden Hour,” of course, refers to the period of time after a person has been severely injured during which, if given medical care, he or she has the greatest chance of survival. Ragsdale received the award for his lifetime of dedication to air medical services, according to HAI.
Ragsdale began in aviation, like many of his peers, in the U.S. Army, where he served in Vietnam, first flying General William McCaffrey, deputy commander of the U.S. forces there, and later serving with a helicopter anti-tank platoon. After returning stateside, he completed aviation maintenance officer school and served in this capacity until deciding to try the civilian world in 1977.
While still in the Army, Ragsdale had his first experience with air medical operations, he told AIN. In 1974, he and another pilot flew an IFR rescue mission in a Bell UH1-H, carrying an Army medic and a nurse to transport three patients to a hospital in Louisville, Ky. “It stuck with me as a cool thing to do, using the skills I had to help save peoples’ lives,” he said.
After leaving the Army, Ragsdale flew power line and oil and gas operations, and for a while pursued a fixed-wing career, flying Mitsubishi MU-2s and Citation jets. He got his first air medical job when Omniflight hired him in 1987, where he eventually became director and subsequently vice president of operations in 1990. He later moved to Rocky Mountain Helicopters as director of LifeNet Services, an experiment in EMS provisioning that came to be known as the “community-based model.”
Ragsdale joined Rocky Mountain Helicopters in 1995 and then went to PHI, when Rocky Mountain was purchased by Air Methods. He served as the president of PHI Air Medical Services, before rejoining his former LifeNet Services colleagues at Air Methods in 2009. [Corrected 4/25/14]
“I’ve had the privilege of working with many fine people,” Ragsdale said, “including four of the key figures in the air medical industry: Dan Parker, founder of Omniflight, Russ Spray, former CEO at Rocky Mountain Helicopters [now president and CEO, Turbomeca USA], Al Gonsoulin [chairman and] CEO at PHI and Aaron Todd, CEO of Air Methods.” [Corrected 4/25/14]
Ragsdale recalled the early days of the air medical industry. “We were trying to learn from our mistakes, mainly accidents. This led to better training and safety programs, which I experienced at Omniflight. At Rocky Mountain, we started hiring nurses and paramedics as part of LifeNet, which brought in a different blend of employees who required different training. I appreciated my time at PHI, because of the lessons learned from the Gulf [of Mexico] oil and gas operations, which could be carried over to air medical operations.”
In 2008, however, “Our industry saw a shocking increase in accidents and this left few operators unscathed,” Ragsdale said. “Because of this, we had a meeting at AMTC [the Air Medical Transport Conference] that year to revisit our commitment to safety, training and aviation issues.” This resulted in formalizing the Air Medical Operators Association (AMOA) in 2009.
“I was fortunate to be the first president of that association until 2012. In addition, I became a board member on the Commission on Accreditation of Medical Transport Systems [CAMTS].” After resigning from the board last year, he was asked to form an aviation safety advisory committee to the CAMTS (pronounced “cames”), which he said is in progress.
“Each stage of my career has been supported by the lessons I’ve learned from each of the operators I worked for,” Ragsdale concluded. “I wake up every day in a good mood, because of the industry I’ve chosen.” Now 64, he plans to keep working for a few more years.
The Great American Safety Drive
Come May 31, Ragsdale, his wife and others plan to embark on a two-week, 2,453-mile road trip from Santa Monica, Calif., to Hilton Head, S.C., on an expedition called the Great American Safety Drive. “The trip, which has been planned by Rod Crane, CEO of Medflight in Ohio, and me, is a demonstration of our and our industry’s commitment to safety for our crews and the patients we serve. In each state we drive through we plan to hold a half-day safety event, to which we’ll be inviting local air medical programs and their EMS counterparts.”
The Safety Drive also has the goal of raising $100,000 in support of safety research and the Survivor’s Network for air and surface medical transport (www.survivors-network.org).
The safety events will take place at or near locations managed or operated by airmed operators Calstar, PHI, Metro Aviation, MedTrans and Air Methods. FlightSafety International, CAMTS and AMOA are also supporting the project.
To join the caravan or participate in an event, go to www.tcmtr.org/GreatAmericanSafetyDrive.