- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

MIDDLE RIVER, Md. — Trooper 1, the Maryland State Police helicopter ambulance, lifts off, heading to the scene of a two-car crash in northern Harford County.

It’s the day’s first call, which came eight hours into a 12-hour shift for 1st Sgt. Walter Kerr, the flight paramedic, and Craig Thompson, the civilian pilot.

As the aircraft flies about 1,000 feet above ground, traveling about 160 mph, Sgt. Kerr and Mr. Thompson are in communication with firefighters in Jarrettsville.

The ground is wet, and the helicopter sinks into the mud. Mr. Thompson lifts the aircraft and flies about 100 yards to land in a cornfield. The pilot must stay on board, so Sgt. Kerr gets out and heads to the ambulance where the car-crash victim, a middle-aged woman, waits.

Sgt. Kerr and Mr. Thompson had spent most of the day in the spacious flight office at Martin State Airport in eastern Baltimore County.

It is furnished with two desks and computers, a kitchenette and a TV room, sofas and chairs. A steady stream of visitors — other medical evacuation crews, state troopers and mechanics — strolled through as Sgt. Kerr and Mr. Thompson waited for a call.

The winter produces fewer accidents, Sgt. Kerr explains, because people tend to stay indoors.

Sgt. Kerr, 44, began his first-responder career as a firefighter in Wilmington, Del., and joined the Maryland State Police in 1986.

He is also a licensed pilot, but does not fly for the state police. As a trooper, he carries a gun on duty, although he seldom has to draw it as a paramedic. “I once had to shoot a deer who had been hit by a car,” he says.

Mr. Thompson, 54, checks weather reports on his computer and tells visitors stories about his father, legendary Orioles broadcaster Chuck Thompson, who died last year.

Craig Thompson was a trooper with the state police before retiring and flying corporate helicopters for a few years. Now, he’s back with state police as a civilian pilot.

Besides the 12 ambulance helicopters (only eight are in service at any given time), the state police aviation unit has a surveillance plane and an unmarked Cessna for prisoners being brought to Maryland from other states.

The first state police medevac flight in Maryland took off on March 19, 1970. The service has flown more than 100,000 patients, including more than 5,300 last year.

Because the medevac program is fully funded by the state of Maryland, no patient — whether he or she lives in the state or not — is billed.

The aviation command’s budget was $22 million last year. Two-thirds of that comes from an annual surcharge of $13.50 on Marylanders’ motor vehicle registration, while the rest comes from the state police budget.

Motor vehicle accidents account for the vast majority of calls to which the state police aviation unit responds. But not all are from accident scenes.

Heart attacks and other medical conditions, falls and sporting accidents are also common. Since the September 11 attacks, the state’s 12 ambulance helicopters also do homeland security checks and surveillance. And the medevac helicopters take part in rescues.

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