Hunter’s rescue highlights how ‘invaluable’ Classic Air Medical crews are in remote Routt County

Classic Air Flight Paramedic Austin Brandt, right, stands with Flight Nurse Zoe Everard and Pilot Holley Gardel inside the medical flight company's hangar at the Steamboat Springs Airport after returning from a mission Monday.
Trevor Ballantyne/Steamboat Pilot & Today

A Classic Air Medical crew extracted a hunter in the area of Sugar Loaf Mountain on Saturday after the individual accidentally shot himself in the leg.

West Routt Fire Chief Trevor Guire said his department responded to the call but quickly dispatched a Classic Air Medical helicopter due to the remote nature of the region and urgent nature of the call.

“We are using them more and more all the time as people are recreating farther from roads and access,” Guire said. “Just the logistics of getting people out of those places, having search and rescue and Classic Air as well as the other flight companies as partners is invaluable.”

Classic Air Flight Paramedic Austin Brandt and Flight Nurse Zoe Everard said their first break in locating the injured hunter came when they spotted a parked vehicle in the area.

“We ended up seeing a parked vehicle on a dirt road and kind of went out there and there were two bystanders that happened upon him … and (they) waved us down,” Brandt said. “All we knew at that time was it was a guy who had a gunshot wound to his leg and he was by himself.”

The crew motioned the hunters to move to a nearby area suitable enough for the pilot of the Bell 407 helicopter to touch down.

“He had a pretty significant injury to his thigh — anytime a firearm discharges it’s going to be significant, obviously — but he was presenting relatively stable for the given injury,” Everard said.

Despite the relative stability, the serious injury required a “quick turnaround” to get the hunter to a higher level of care. Everard and Brandt worked to assess his wound as they loaded him into the helicopter, which took off and headed to the UCHealth Medical Center of the Rockies in Loveland.

“We took him to the trauma center with serious injuries,” Everard said. “That is all we really know at this point.”

On Monday night, Brandt and Everard recalled the Saturday mission as they sat in a brightly lit hangar at Steamboat Springs Airport. Behind them, the Classic Air Bell 407, called “Zulu Mike,” was perched on a rolling platform attached to a John Deere tractor.

After shooing their cat — also named “Zulu Mike” — from the tractor’s seat, Classic Air pilot Holley Gardel said, weather depending, they could expect to be airborne and on their way to their next mission in less than 15 minutes. During the daylight hours, the turnaround time drops to less than 10 minutes.

The three-person Classic Air crew are among the 30 pilots and medical personnel who work from company’s Steamboat base and at a fixed-wing airplane base in Craig. Flight paramedics and nurses work eight 24-hour shifts each month. Pilots work seven days in a row on a day shift, followed by seven nights in a row working a night shift before a two-week break.

Gardel, 51, who started flying helicopters in 2009 and recently celebrated her one-year anniversary at Classic Air, underscored the level of professionalism she witnesses from the pilot’s seat.

“Watching my medical crew do what they do, I am just super impressed,” Gardel said. “You never see anyone get frazzled or cross at each other. It can be a stressful situation, and they handle it with grace and professionalism and it’s pretty awesome to see.”

Everard, who began her career as an emergency room and intensive care unit nurse before becoming a flight nurse two years ago, said dayslong shifts broken up by critical, often stressful missions, create a bond among the Classic Air crews operating from Routt County.

“We have a very family feel, we are like siblings,” the 28-year-old flight nurse said. “We have a very fun and lighthearted attitude, but when things get serious and we go on patient (calls), we really work together.”

Based in Salt Lake City, Classic Air also operates medical flight bases in Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Wyoming. The Utah-based health care system Intermountain Health acquired Classic Air in 2021, adding the company’s fleet to its own medical transport organization, Life Flight, and creating what is now the largest air medical services company in the country, according to Classic Air Director of Customer Relations Chad Bowdre.

In Craig and Steamboat, crews average a mission per day, he added, but only about 15% of those responses are for search and rescue missions; most of the workload involves transporting critical-care patients between local hospitals and medical centers on the Front Range.

Brandt, 31, joined Classic Air around the same time as Bowdre. He currently lives in Salt Lake City, making the six-hour drive to Steamboat twice a month to work a four-day shift, but from his seat in the back of “Zulu Mike,” he has no problem feeling like he is part of the local community.

“It makes me have a large sense of pride to be able to be such a valuable asset to the community,” Brandt said. “We help with search and rescue, with critical care transports over the front range or to places that people need a definitive high level of care.

“I really enjoy the aspect of us being here and being able to do a variety of different things.”

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