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GundersenAIR flight crew embraces office in the sky

For Ben Shockey and Andy Carpenter, each day presents a variety of challenges and surprises.  

Or it doesn’t.  

That’s the unpredictable nature of their work on the flight crew of GundersenAIR 2 in Decorah. Some days may be relatively quiet, where they’ll camp out in the crew’s house near the hangar doing administrative work or continuing education, waiting to hear tones that never go off. Others, they might be in the air three or four times, leaving in doubt when they’ll be able to fit in their next meal – or even use the bathroom.  

But for Shockey, a flight medic at Gundersen Health System for the past three years, and Carpenter, a flight nurse and fellow three-year veteran who’s also a respiratory therapist, it’s that need to adapt at a moment’s notice, that adrenaline rush when a call comes in, that makes the job exciting. They’re medical professionals charged with treating whatever calamity awaits at the scene of an emergency. They’re also amateur meteorologists, who, along with the crew’s pilot, need to carefully read weather conditions to decide if it’s safe enough to even fly to the scene.  

It’s a job that comes with a lot of responsibility. But for these partners, being on this flight crew is something they worked toward, assuming the risks of the job but also reaping its rewards.   

To be considered for a job on high, medics need three to five years of critical care certification and transportation experience on the ground, while nurses need three years of experience in critical care working in an ICU. Shockey likes the pairing because medics bring a lot of pre-hospital background – meaning all the work done on a patient before he arrives at the hospital – while nurses bring invaluable ICU experience. Eventually, as a medic-nurse team like Shockey and Carpenter work closely together, their skill sets become nearly identical.  

“The goal is, over a period of time, we become very similar in our skills and our knowledge,” Shockey said. “There’s nothing that Andy can do that I can’t do, and there’s nothing I can do that he can’t do. Through this process, we sort of complement each other and build off each other.”  

Although they’ve expanded their medical knowledge by working with one another, which leads to better patient outcomes, Shockey and Carpenter also need to know how to keep themselves healthy and safe, because as much as it is their job to save lives, their goal is to always come home to their own families after a shift. That’s why safety is paramount before and during every flight.  

Several reasons exist as to why an aircraft may never leave the helipad after a call comes in, the most common being adverse weather conditions. Lightning in the immediate area ends a response, as do conditions that could cause ice to form on the helicopter. Limited visibility and high winds are strikes against a flight, though they won’t necessarily shut it down. Surprisingly, temperature isn’t a major factor.  

Once it’s determined conditions are safe, the crew takes a few minutes to walk around the helicopter, checking for any open latches, unsecured doors or anything else that could cause problems once in the air.  

“There are a lot of safety checks and balances,” Shockey said, adding that it can take anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes from the time a call comes in to the time the helicopter departs because of safety protocols. “There are a lot of places along the way where you can say, ‘Hold on a second. Let’s take a second and check on this.’”  

After all that, even if everything checks out, there’s still one more consideration that could pull the plug: fatigue. It’s something each member of the crew, pilot included, needs to guard against during their 24-hour shift, and on a particularly busy day, that can be challenging. Some calls, from the time the team leaves Decorah to the time they return, could last between three and four hours. It’s also possible they may be paged again before returning to base, which adds to the length of time away. Occasionally, some patients must be flown to Rochester, Madison, Iowa City or St. Paul.  

“When you get back and you’ve been gone eight hours and you haven’t eaten, and maybe you haven’t been to the bathroom, that gets busy,” Shockey said. “And being in the helicopter is physically exhausting. It’s loud, it vibrates, the seats aren’t comfortable and it’s a high-stress environment. You’re mentally taxed.”  

Then there’s the two to three hours of charting that needs to be done once they return – all with the possibility the tones go off and they’re out the door again. That’s what makes sleeping – any chance they get, no matter what time of day – so critical. It’s not about laziness or putting off other duties. Rather, it’s an essential part of the job.  

“Sleep for us at work is functional,” Shockey said. “When we sleep and take naps during the day, we’re protecting ourselves against the night. You eat and sleep when you can.”  

Despite the irregular schedules, both Carpenter and Shockey say they’re drawn to flight work for personal reasons. Carpenter appreciates the unique perspective of the area he gets in the air – something he never saw as a ground paramedic.   

“It’s a beautiful area that we live in, and when you get to fly, you have a different appreciation for the topography and what makes this area unique,” he said.   

But he’s also an analyzer and loves using that skill in ways that help people.  

“The whole problem-solving part of it, that’s what’s always attracted me to it,” Carpenter said. “Taking care of people has its own rewards and makes you feel good about your job, but what drives me is tending to problems.”  

For Shockey, a Decorah resident, he’s honored to be able to serve his neighbors in this way.  

“I love being able to service the communities where I live,” he said. “That’s a source of pride.”  

He says the job is challenging, humbling and “comes with a ton of responsibility.”   

“Servicing the communities you live in is a double-edged sword,” he said. “You have to look people in the eye. They’re handing their loved ones over to you with the promise you’ll do everything you can for them to be able to see them again.”  

Shockey has flown people he’s known or had a connection to, so he feels the extra weight of those calls. But sometimes, it’s the person he doesn’t know – but can relate to – that leaves a lasting effect, such as the father with a teenage child.  

“I’ve got a teenage kid, and for us, it was a straight-forward run, but it hit a little different,” he said. “Some just kind of stay with you, for good or bad.”  

Despite how serious each situation they’re called to is, Shockey loves the excitement of the job, its unpredictable nature and knowing that each time he climbs abroad GundersenAIR 2, he’s working to give someone another day.  

“I mean, we fly on a helicopter,” he says, with a laugh. “I get to come to work, fly on a helicopter, and try to save peoples’ lives.”  

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La Crosse, WI 54601

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