It is just past 5 o'clock on a sultry Friday afternoon when the phone chirps softly in the Maryland State Police aviation unit at Strawberry Point. Paramedic Phillip Scott answers, replies, "En route," and moves quickly with pilot Norman Molter toward the gleaming black and green helicopter.
In less than six minutes, they're airborne in Trooper One, Maryland's newest MedEvac helicopter, whirring away from eastern Baltimore County toward a messy traffic accident on the Eastern Shore.
"That's the scene up there," Scott says to Molter, pointing at the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances -- and a traffic backup of beach-bound motorists that stretches for miles.
As Trooper One touches down in the westbound lanes of U.S. 50, it is midway through a tightly choreographed sequence that pits pilot, paramedic and patient against the clock. This night's traffic accident, which has seriously injured three people, is one of thousands that the state police aviation unit will work this summer, ferrying the injured by air to Maryland Shock Trauma Center within the "golden hour" -- the 60 minutes after a critical injury that can mean the difference between life and death.
It's a typical mission for Trooper One, which became the fleet's 12th Dauphin helicopter when the state police bought it in May for $5.9 million.
"We can be anywhere in the state in 18 minutes or less," says Col. David B. Mitchell, the head of the Maryland State Police, which operates eight helicopter bases from Frederick to Salisbury.
The first public-service airborne-ambulance program in the United States, Maryland's MedEvac program began in 1970 with two helicopters. Now in its 30th year, the program flies between 3,000 and 4,000 missions a year. As of January, about 78,000 people had been flown to medical treatment.
Summer is the busiest season, state police say, because of vacation travel, and the Salisbury helicopter has been averaging at least one trip a day to Ocean City. Traffic- heavy holiday weekends like the Fourth of July can put all eight helicopters in the air at once.
On this Friday night, Trooper One is one of three MedEvac helicopters summoned to U.S. 50 at Route 213, where a collision has injured two drivers and a passenger. Once on the ground, Molter stays on board while Scott moves quickly across the road toward the cluster of firetrucks, ambulances and state police cars. Burly, shirtless Shore firefighters mill around as Scott confers briefly with local paramedics. They carry a Seaford, Del., woman with a head injury to the helicopter.
Scott and the local paramedics slide the woman, secured to an emergency board, on board. The door closes, the local emergency personnel move away from the rotating blades, and Trooper One is airborne again, this time flying west toward the 12th-floor helipad at the Maryland Shock Trauma Center in downtown Baltimore.
Scott crouches by the prone woman, watching her vital signs on a computerized monitor and adjusting her oxygen mask. As the helicopter passes over the Key Bridge, Molter radios Shock Trauma, "We're two minutes away." As Trooper One touches down, three emergency-room workers with a rolling stretcher open the door on the helipad. The patient has arrived with nearly half the "golden hour" to spare.
Once back at Strawberry Point, Scott relaxes, dropping into the laconic language favored by every aviator since test pilot Chuck Yeager. "Another day, another couple hundred pounds of fuel," he says offhandedly as he fills the helicopter's tanks before it is towed back into the hangar.
Just before dark, Trooper One will go out again. The night shift team of paramedic Keith McMinn and pilot Michael W. DeRuggiero take a short hop to Harford County, where a woman has quarreled with her husband and jumped -- twice -- out of his truck while he is driving it.
The woman is also combative with paramedics, and McMinn is wary about bringing her on board because she can endanger flight safety.
But she stays motionless, heavily bound with gauze and the straps on the emergency board, as she is wheeled under the rotating blades and lifted onto Trooper One.
"A lot of people we transport might not be badly hurt," McMinn explains. "But local emergency rooms aren't set up to handle them." Head injuries require sophisticated equipment to rule out complications, he says, and many smaller hospitals don't have such technology.
The MedEvac program, the vision of Dr. R Adams Cowley, for whom the Shock Trauma facility is named, has brought prime medical care within reach of anyone injured in Maryland, with its nearly 50 pilots and equal number of paramedics.
Nearly 80 percent of the helicopter flights bring patients into Shock Trauma. Another 15 percent or so are for law-enforcement work -- tracking missing people or suspects who have slipped from police custody.