Brian Lair is one of four captains of the Slave Lake air ambulance. In 2006, he moved to Slave Lake for the job. He planned to stay for two years. In May, he’ll have been working here for 15.
“I’d heard about the lure of the north, but didn’t believe it until I came here,” he says. “When I showed up in 2006, there were 7,000 people and 14 places to worship. There’s a lot of good people in Slave Lake. People actually smile at you when you walk across the road in front of them.”
Lair has had many interesting jobs in aviation.
In one, he says, he chased the queen across the ocean and across Canada. I.e. he was the on flight mechanic in the plane which followed Queen Elizabeth’s plane.
However, “this is the best one,” he says. “By far the best one. It gives you a chance to help people in need. It’s not a job. It’s an opportunity to serve.”
Lair: “In most jobs or work environments, people will say what’s in it for me? I used to be like that, but this job changed me. The question now is how can I serve the people better on my next flight.”
In Lair’s years of service, three babies have been born on his plane.
The purpose of the air ambulance is to get patients to the care they need as quickly as possible. From Slave Lake to Edmonton on the plane is 36 minutes, but can be three or four hours by road ambulance.
There are 11 air ambulances in Alberta.
The air ambulance has a long history in Slave Lake. M.D. of Lesser Slave River Councillor Brian Rosche started flying the air ambulance in 1978.
He says, as early as 1975, there was a regular plane, which was used for the purpose. A stretcher would be put in. A nurse, paramedic, doctor, or two, would accompany the patient.
“We’ve been fortunate,” says Rosche. “Without the forestry, we wouldn’t have this airport. It would be much smaller.”
Slave Lake airport is home to one of Alberta’s forest fire fighting airbases. It needs to be big enough for the large water bombers to take off and land.
Slave Lake air ambulance is one of the busiest air ambulances in Alberta, Lair says. In February 2019, the Slave Lake air ambulance averaged eight flights a day for 28 days.
The crews work on two week rotations of twelve hour shifts. The week stretches alternate days and nights.
During Lair’s last day shifts, he flew 13 of 14 days. During his most recent night shift, he’d flown 12 and averaged five or six ‘legs’ (single trips). One six-leg-night, he flew from Slave Lake to Wabasca, Wabasca to Edmonton, Edmonton to Wabasca, Wabasca to Slave Lake, and Slave Lake to Edmonton. During these legs, he transported patients from Wabasca to Edmonton, Edmonton to Wabasca, and Slave Lake to Edmonton.
The air ambulance is based out of Slave Lake airport, says Lair. It is the first to be called to High Prairie and Wabasca. If there are no calls in these three areas, then the plane is used ‘as needed’ around the province and beyond.
Lair has flown the air ambulance around the province and to Whitehorse, Yellowknife, Regina, and Kelowna.
The air ambulance is a Beach King Air 250. It is operated by Can West, which operates nine of the 11 air ambulances in the province. Eight of these are 250, and one is a 350, a larger version of the same basic plane.
“It’s (the 250) an extremely dependable airplane,” Lair says. Noting his own bias, he continues “and has the best engine in the world, because it’s made in Canada.” Reliability is an important attribute of an air ambulance.
The plane is equipped with two stretchers and two extra seats so an escort can go with each patient. The crew also includes two professional medics.
Lair: “we’re guided by a professional team that works hard, for endless hours to serve the people of Alberta. When Can West shows up, you are definitely in good hands. We get you to your destination in a timely and professional manner.”