Vail Valley helicopter service takes off |

Vail Valley helicopter service takes off

Sarah Mausolf
Vail, CO Colorado
Kristin Anderson/Vail DailyTristate CareFlight helicopter pilot Isaiah Dionne looks out over the Eagle and Gypsum area while flying the Vail Valley Medical Center's new airlift helicopter Tuesday in Eagle County. Dionne and other pilots will rotate shifts flying the helicopter that will be stored at the Vail Valley Jet Center in Gypsum.

VAIL – Dr. Reg Franciose remembers a frustrating night in the emergency room three years ago. He needed to send a patient with a head injury from the Vail Valley Medical Center to a Denver hospital for additional treatment, but it took hours for the helicopter to arrive.

That night, an idea came to him.

The Vail hospital had been relying on helicopter services based as far away as Denver when critical patients needed to move from the Vail hospital to other medical facilities. Franciose knew the Vail Valley Medical Center alone didn’t fly enough patients to other hospitals to justify launching its own emergency helicopter service. However, a new helicopter outfit based at the Eagle County airport could be warranted if it catered to hospitals in Vail, Glenwood Springs, Aspen and elsewhere in the region, he mused.

The helicopter service Franciose envisioned three years ago is set to begin today.

Franciose said he hopes the Gypsum-based service will cut down the amount of time it takes for a helicopter to respond to the Vail Valley Medical Center. Previously, it could take 45 minutes to an hour for a helicopter to arrive in Vail – longer if the weather failed to cooperate, Franciose said.

“If the helicopter’s available and there’s favorable weather, it’s quick,” said Franciose, medical director for the helicopter transport service and trauma surgeon for the Vail Valley Medical Center. “If it’s not available because it’s somewhere else, it’s not available.”

The helicopter based at the Eagle County airport can get to the Vail hospital in 17 minutes, said Scott Stamper, vice president of business development for TriState CareFlight, the company providing the new helicopter service.

In Vail, the helicopter will mainly rush patients from the Vail Valley Medical Center to Denver hospitals in cases where patients need specialists or technology the Vail hospital lacks, Franciose said. Severe heart attacks, strokes and head injuries are examples of situations that may require a transport to Denver.

“For certain acute things, time is of the essence,” Franciose said.

The helicopters can also respond to traffic accidents or injuries in Vail’s backcountry, Stamper said.

The patient’s insurance typically pays for the helicopter flights, which usually cost $10,000 to $12,000, Stamper said.

Arizona-based TriState CareFlight operates a fleet of 14 helicopters and four planes that take patients from hospital to hospital in five Western states. The company recently stationed one of its helicopters at the jet center in Gypsum. That chopper will pick up patients at hospitals in Vail, Aspen, Glenwood Springs, Steamboat Springs and Rifle, Stamper said. TriState has supplied a crew of pilots, nurses and paramedics to man the helicopter in Eagle County, Stamper said.

In the Rocky Mountains, where snow and bad weather can derail helicopter flights to ski towns, trying to dispatch a chopper from other areas can be tricky.

“It’s hard for them to reach us,” Franciose said. “This is a stretch for them.”

With a helicopter stationed in Gypsum, weather could be less likely to thwart a flight.

“The advantage of this is: They’re close to us, within minutes,” Franciose said. “Then we have options. Depending on weather systems we could take them to Denver, Grand Junction, Colorado Springs, if we have to, we can go with the weather in any direction.”

Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or

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