How to Become a Flight Nurse

One of the best things about having a career as a nurse is the variety of jobs one can have. Whether you want to work in a pediatric clinic, home health, or a busy ICU, there is something for every type of personality in nursing. Some nurses dream of becoming a flight nurse. For them, the idea of participating in field rescues or transporting the most critically ill patients sounds like a worthwhile challenge. These nurses are often some of the most highly skilled critical care nurses who are ready to take their skill set to the next level. Often, these nurses are given a wide scope of practice, get to treat a variety of patients, and of course, they get to fly in the rescue helicopter.  

But what does it take to become a flight nurse? Becoming a flight nurse takes more than just luck. Most people who want to work as part of the flight rescue team spend several years gaining the experience, expertise, and skills necessary to get the job.  

Flight nurse education requirements

Almost all organizations require their flight nurses to have at least a BSN. Earning a BSN can take anywhere from three to five years, depending on the program. Some programs will allow students to complete their BSN in as little as 18 months if they already have a bachelor’s degree in a related field.  

In addition to their degree, flight nurses must often earn a few more credentials before getting hired onto the team. These may include:  

  • ACLS – Advanced Cardiovascular Life Support  
  • PALS – Pediatric Advanced Life Support 
  • CCRN – Critical Care Registered Nurse 
  • TCRN – Trauma Certified Registered Nurse 
  • CCRN Pediatric – Pediatric Critical Care Registered Nurse 

Gaining experience 

Before a nurse is considered for a position on a flight team, they will need at least 2-3 years of critical care experience. Intensive care, emergency medicine, and for some teams, labor and delivery are considered critical care units.  

Wherever you are in your nursing career, consider how your current job helps you meet your future goals. Accepting a job in a medical unit or a clinic may give you the schedule you want now, but it will make it harder to secure the high-acuity jobs that you want down the road.  

In addition to choosing a job in critical care, be mindful of the facility you choose to work in. Not all emergency departments or intensive care units are the same. Gaining critical care experience in a CVICU or Trauma ICU at a large trauma 1 center is much more impressive on a flight resume than years of experience in a small, rural hospital with a generalized ICU. 

Developing soft skills 

Of course, it takes more than just education and experience to become a flight nurse. Flight nurses are often tasked with caring for the most critically ill patients with very limited resources while traveling in an ambulance, plane, or helicopter. It takes a certain kind of person to thrive in that kind of environment.  

Recommended course: Crisis Resource Management for Healthcare Professionals 

Typically, flight nurses must develop the following soft skills: 

  • Calm under pressure 
  • Great communication 
  • Quick decision making 
  • Resilience 
  • Critical thinking 
  • Collaboration 
  • Adaptability 
  • Time management 

Just like other skills, these traits can be learned through practice and persistence. Many other jobs like EMT, air traffic controller, and project manager can help a person develop these traits.  

Hard skills for flight nurses 

One of the things many flight nurses love about their job is that they get to do all the procedures that a regular hospital RN gets to do, and they also get to learn how to do some advanced procedures.  

In addition to a thorough understanding of anatomy, physiology, chemistry, and pharmacology, a life flight nurse must be an expert in:  

  • IV insertion 
  • Intubation 
  • Inserting chest tubes  
  • Placing central lines 
  • Managing IV medications and drips 
  • Managing and adjusting ventilator settings 
  • Interpreting EKG waveforms 
  • Cardioverting and defibrillating patients 
  • Administering conscious sedation 

Flight nurses may even have to care for patients in need of advanced life support devices like impella, ECMO, intra-aortic balloon pump, or left-ventricular-assist devices. Usually, an expert in one of these devices will join the life flight team for transportation.  

Physical requirements 

Most flight transports are inter-hospital transports. These trips are generally needed to transport patients from smaller, rural hospitals, to larger hospitals with more staff and resources. However, flight nurses are also trained to go on rescue flights. This means that they may be rescuing a patient from a steep canyon or the scene of an accident.  

Because of the physical demands of the job, flight nurses must be in good physical condition. They must be able to lift heavy items and help move patients, as well as move around well in a tightly confined space.  

Different flight teams have different height and weight requirements for their nursing teams. These are dependent on the size of the aircraft they use.  

Life Flight as a second career 

Wherever you are in your current career, it is not too late to work towards becoming a flight nurse. Creating a strategy for how you will get the education, credentials, experience, and skills you need is the first step toward reaching your goals.  

Nurses who work in low acuity units are often able to transfer and get the critical care experience they need while drawing on their prior knowledge to take excellent care of their patients. Likewise, those in other occupations who must learn teamwork, time management, resilience, and critical thinking skills can become a flight nurse with a focused effort.