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Winter Weather Creates Challenges for Hospital Helicopter Pilots

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa - Waverly Police responded to an apparent stabbing at the Red Fox Inn during the early morning hours on Wednesday, prompting a request for a helicopter from Allen Memorial Hospital in Waterloo. However, police said the Air Care flight was unable to respond due to poor visibility in the area.

Randy Kluj, a pilot for Lifeguard Air Ambulance service at St. Luke's Hospital, said he's experienced several days during this winter that have caused him to ground flights. Kluj said he has to watch weather conditions closely prior to a takeoff and then decide if it's safe enough for an emergency response.

"We always have to be on top of the weather forecast and watching the radar," said Kluj.

He keeps a close eye on a weather service designed specifically for pilots. When a call comes in, he and his crew - made up of a flight nurse and flight medic - have a discussion about flying conditions.

"It's not the snow itself, it's just that with the snow comes decreased visibility, and lower cloud ceilings," Kluj said.

Lifeguard had 318 flights out of St. Luke's last year, and more than 60 so far this year. Kluj said a number of his flights were grounded this winter.

"There have been quite a few snowstorms where we would have to take the aircraft to the hanger, or not be able to take the flight due to reduced visibility," he said.

In those cases, sometimes other helicopter services with clearer flight paths are sent, or ambulances will be dispatched for a ground response.

Either way, Kluj said the overriding goal is to get medical help to people who need it as quickly and safely as possible. A challenge, especially in a state where the weather can turn on a dime.

"One of the first things I was told when I came here to Iowa is, if you don't like the weather, wait a minute," Kluj said.

Last night's incident comes just over a year after a medical helicopter crashed while on its way to Emmetsburg for a medical call. A report afterwards showed weather played a factor in the crash. The patient was not on board, but the crash did kill pilot Gene Grell, nurse Shelly Lair-Langenbau and paramedic Russell Piehl.

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